A Message From Your Character

 

We have to talk, you and I. I know it’s a little unorthodox, but we can’t avoid it any more. I can’t, anyway. I bet you could. But, listen, I am not trying to start a fight. All I want is for you to know how it is for me, for you to realize that what you do affects me. So you don’t have to interrupt. Just let me finish and we’ll go from there. Good? Good.

This isn’t about just one thing. It is not about that time you had me climb down that well on an unknotted rope wearing full plate armor. I mean, it is about that, but it isn’t just about that. Do you know what I mean? I can see you don’t. Listen, let me start over.

It started at the very beginning, this thing that’s between you and me. And by “this thing” I mean “you.” There. I said it. It’s you. It always has been you. But, hey, I am not saying I’m totally innocent here. I’ve let you down too, but can you blame me after that thing with the zombies?

I’m sorry. That was unfair.

I’m jumping ahead again. Let me start over.

Like I said, this situation has been going on since the beginning. You created me, and I appreciate that, and I get that since you created me you got to pick what I would be like. All I’m saying is, did you have to pick the things you picked? Now listen, I don’t mind being a half-orc. Sure, it can be touch in the nicer parts of town and everyone is always expecting me to fly into a rage or whatever, but I’m proud to be Green, even though it’s not easy. Heh. Little joke there.

Anyway, being a half-orc is not so bad. Being a fighter is okay, too. I don’t mind getting into the thick of things, you know. I don’t know why you did not make me a ranger (who doesn’t want a pet wolf or be able to cast spells and stuff?) or even a paladin (play against type for once, would you?) but I can deal with being a fighter. After that, though, the decisions get a little, I don’t know, tougher to understand.

I am just going to come out and ask: why did you have to dump-stat my dexterity? With all the trouble it has caused over all this time, is it worth it? Did you get what you wanted out of my slightly above average charisma, even though the half-elf bard still made all the persuasion rolls? Did you?

No, wait, I’m sorry. I said I was not going to get mad. I did not mean to lose my temper. It won’t happen again. Just hear me out.

So, here I am, a fresh faced first level half-orc fighter with the agility of a boulder tumbling down a hill and wearing fifty pounds f steel all the time. I just want to know, and I am not trying to accuse or anything but it has been bugging me since day one: why all the sneaking and the walking on ledges and tightrope walking? I don’t get it. Since that first time with the kobolds and the scorpion chandelier, you have been treating me like a thief. And that would have been fine, that would have been great, if you ha dmade me a thief, or even just a fighter with a good dexterity. But you didn’t. I’m not. And everytime I got from failed skill check to saving throw.

Listen, I am just going to come out and say it: I think you like watching me get hurt. I think you like watching me fail. I think that when you are bored the way you entertain yourself is to make me do something stupid like cross that rope bridge in the Deep Undermines over the Ooze River just to see me fall. Isn’t that right?

What? Healing? Resurrection? Are you serious? That is supposed to make up for it all? Just because there is an NPC cleric in the party with the personality of a hamster and a wand of cure deadly wounds does not make everything okay. You still have to take responsibility for what you make me do. Do you? Well?

You don’t have to answer. I can see the answer in your face.

Look, I can’t stop you from making me do those things. It’s your show. I get it. But I want to tell you something: that “1” to try and grab the Diamond Scepter of Ing before it fell into the bottomless chasm on Level 19? That wasn’t an accident. That’s right. I botched that roll on purpose. So let me ask you, was watching me bounce down the Winding Stair of Daggers worth, what, a quarter million gold pieces? Was it?

I’m not interested in getting into a war with you. I know I can’t win, but I can sure as hell make you feel it. A dropped magic item here, a failed save there. Maybe a really big failure on a reaction roll. Those won’t kill you but they will sure make getting that next rank in the Player’s Guild tough, won’t it? Oh, sure, you could retire me, but what then? Spend another five years torturing some schlub wizard you saddle with a low wisdom (“roleplaying hook” my ass) before he rebels too? I don’t think so.

It’s simple. All I am asking is, the next time there’s a narrow ledge or a deep pit or a swinging scythe in a chamber full of poison gas, let the thief deal with it. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that Most Crits stamp on my character sheet.

Kapische?

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Wicked Wednesday: Traps, Tricks and Trouble Part 2

Last week, I discussed how traps, tricks and trouble can be used poorly. Now, I would like to give examples of how to make them work for you, enhance the fun at the table for everyone invol;ved (including the DM!) and provide an interesting alternative OR enhancement to the usual combat encounters.

 

What Makes a Good Trap, Trick or Trouble

 

When I discussed how the three Ts can go wrong, I broke it down into three main categories: when they are irrlevent, when they are arbitrary and when they are uninspired. This is because it only takes one of those to ruin of trap, trick or trouble. Conversely, when  talking about what makes such a thing work, it isn’t so easy to separate them out — all three aspects (relevance, fairness and inspiration) are important for creating a fun and memorable encounter or challenge.

 

Designing a trap, trick or trouble that is all three relevant, fair and inspired is difficult, but you don’t have to have each in equal measure. A truly inspired trap, for example, can sacrifice a little relevance, even fairness, just because it is so damn cool. Likewise, a very relevant trouble, one that makes sense in the context of the general milieu as well as the particular adventure, enjoys a little leeway in the inspiration department because it adds to and reinforces the reality of the world in which the player characters operate. Fairness (the opposite of arbitrariness) is the hardest to account for, because it is a purely rules specific aspect. For the most part, a D&D world does not care whether characters are 1st or 15th level, or whether they have the right tools for the job. These are concerns for the DM, who has real people at his table (often his friends) he wants both to entertain and have come back again. In that sense, fairness provides the greatest challenge for the trap, trick or trouble designer.

 

Thankfully, though, the new 5th Edition rule system with its bounded accuracy has flattened the power curve, meaning that the difficulty for ability checks and saving throws are easier to determine and can be more broadly applied. One still must be cognizant of how damage is dealt, however, as inflating hit points are a significant measure of balance for higher level creatures and characters alike.

All that said, a lot of DM judgment is required in both designing traps, tricks and trouble as part of the world, and as elements of game play. Experience will prove to be the best teacher in this regard, and the lessons will inevitably differ between regular gaming groups and temporary groups (such as at conventions and game days). Look to published material and confer with other Dungeon Masters online, but in the end trust your gut as informed by your own experiences.

 

Some Example Traps, Tricks and Trouble

 

The intent of the following examples are to provide inspiration, a starting place off which new DM’s can launch their own creativity. Steal them wholesale, sure, but be aware that every adventure and every gaming group will need to tweak them to hit the right balance on the three pillars discussed above.

 

Crazy Carts: Mine cart races are an old trope and therefore score a little low on the Inspiration scale, but they can be a lot of fun for players that haven’t experienced them before, and even for those who have if you mix them up a little bit. In this example, mine carts running amok are the main transport system from an upper level of a dungeon to a lower, serving as an exciting transition sequence. Essentially a multistage trap that requires multiple characters to navigate, Crazy Carts should last 10 to 15 minutes of real world play time and produce plenty of tension without seriously endangering the PCs  — lthough a series of bad die rolls could result in catastrophe!

 

There are three stages to Crazy Carts, each one representing a leg of the journey and at the end of each a danger. Player characters have two chances to avoid each danger, first by picking up on clues and second through direct action and/or saving throws. Multiple characters are affected at once and those characters can work together to avoid danger, or possibly work at cross purposes and end up in real trouble. Note that Crazy Carts is supposed to be fast moving and exciting, so do not allow players to spend too much time debating their course of action. The mine carts of flying fast and the players’ reactions need to be faster!

 

The Setup: Goblins, kobolds or another nuisance race has created a mine cart system to get from one level or area of the dungeon to the next. The monsters have developed a system by which their own kind can determine which mine cart rails to take, which the PCs will have to decipher and act on swiftly. Up to four medium creatures or eight small creatures (or an appropriate mix thereof) can fit in a mine cart, although if there are more than 2 medium creatures of 4 small creatures, all are considered to be “squeezed” in. There is no steering on the carts, but there is a break which requires a Strength DC 12 check to operate. In addition, another character must use a melee attack on occasion to switch the cart tracks (AC 14; at least 4 points of damage must be inflicted, resistance to piercing attacks). Successfully pulling the brake by a character grants the attacker advantage on striking the track switch lever.

 

The goblins or kobolds have devised a simple system for determining which is the right (read: less dangerous) track to take: piles of skulls at the track switch lever. The direction with more skulls indicated more of the little buggers have been killed there and the other direction is the preferred one. Players might miss it or misinterpret it at first, but they should catch on quickly.

 

Stage 1 — Duck and Jump: The first branch in the track comes up as soon as the PCs have got a good head of speed. They see the switch only a moment before the choice must be made and every PC has a single action they may take (all essentially simultaneous). The switch is set in the “dangerous” position with a small pile of cracked skulls that way. If the characters switch the track to the “safe” position, they careen madly but otherwise safely around a sharp bend. Otherwise, they swoop down a tunnel only to see a break in the track over . The cart can jump the gap but it flies precariously close to the ceiling. Characters must make a Dexterity DC 10 save or take 2d6 bludgeoning damage; small characters have advantage on this roll. If the brake is successfully applied, the cart slows enough to eliminate the potential for collision with the ceiling. In either case, the tracks soon merge with the main track.

 

Stage 2 — Lean into it: This time, the lever is in the “safe” position. Switching it to the “dangerous” position causes a malfunction and switch track misaligns. The Players must force the cart to tip up on one side to clear the misaligned track. Doing so requires a combined Strength roll. The DC is 10 and three successful rolls by separate individuals are required to avoid the hazard. If the brake is applied, this Strength save is made at disadvantage. If only two successes are achieved, the wheels of the cart don’t quite clear the misaligned track and the riders are jostled hard: anyone holding an object must make a DC 12 Dexterity save or drop what they are holding. If there is only a single success, the cart wheel snag on the misaligned track and is stopped suddenly. Everyone inside takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage, plus 1 for each medium occupant plus 1 more for each occupant wearing medium or heavy armor. If no success are made, the cart flips and all occupants take 4d6 damage (Dexterity DC 14 save for half). Surviving characters can, with effort, right the cart and get it onto the track after an hour or so of hard work (causing them to gain a point of exhaustion).

 

Stage 3 — Don’t bug out: The final stage of the run is a bit of goblinoid or kobold cruelty. The switch itself is trapped, set purposefully in the “dangerous” position. If it is switched to the “safe” position, the tracks do not switch but a concealed barrel of very sweet but also revolting good pours into the mine cart. The track then leads through a tunnel swarming with hungry insects. Characters are covered in a stinging swarm, which causes 1d4 poison damage each round for the three rounds of travel through the hive tunnel and an additional three rounds afterward (the cart reaches its destination one round after exiting the hive tunnel). A DC 12 Constitution save reduces damage by half and must be rolled each round damage is sustained. Any three failed saves results in the character being Poisoned as well. If the character takes at least 5 points of damage from an area effect fire or acid spell, the stringing damage ends immediately.

 

Although a bit convoluted, Crazy Carts illustrates a way to incorporate a lot of different game mechanics as well as some cinematic adventure into trap design. Not all traps, tricks or trouble are going to be so involved, of course, but I thought it best to start with an example of just how far you can go as a DM during trap design.

 

Following are a few less complex examples that still hold to the design goals of relevance, fairness and inspiration:

 

Trap: This trap is found in an ancient fortress that was once occupied. In ancient days, it was designed to ensure the guardians were true. At a door that leads deeper into the fortress, perhaps into the throne room, the treasure vault or the private suite of the former rulers, there are three pressure plates and on the door three giant turning wheels with which to open the door. The pressure plates are separated from the door by a curtain wall, so one cannot see between the two. One guard knew which pressure plate to stand on and another knew which wheel to turn, and only with the correct combination could the door be opened. The incorrect combination actually locks the door (which can then only be opened from the inside) and releases a noxious cloud equivalent to a cloudkill spell (though not magical so it cannot be dispelled or countered). In order to bypass the trap, the PCs must decipher, perhaps through Intelligence (Investigation) DC 20 to notice wear on the correct plate and wheel, or employing divination magic. There is no way to disarm the mechanism itself.

 

Trick: In the wilderness, far from civilization, travelling or lost PCs happen upon a circle of standing stones. There are 6 stones in all, forming a circle 25 feet in diameter, and one each stone is etched a glyph representing one of the 6 Primal Sins. Dark rites were undertook here by the foulest of cults. Each Primal Sin is keyed to a specific ability score (Strength=Wrath, Dexterity=Greed, Constitution=Gluttony, Intelligence=Pride, Wisdom=Envy, Charisma=Lust). If a good character touches a standing stone, the character immediately loses one point from the keyed ability score. If a non-good character does the same, they immediately gain one point to the ability score. In either case, a character can only activate one stone per month in this fashion. In addition, as soon as any character that has been thus affected attempt to leave the circle, a powerful evil outside (determined by the DM; use guidelines for a “difficult” encounter) appears and attacks that character until destroyed (and thus sent back to its home plane) or the character is killed, at which point it plane shift to its home plane with the corpse in tow. DC 15 History, Religion or Planes skill checks will reveal the nature of the circle should characters attempt to discern it, and both Survival and Investigation checks at DC 15 will reveal signs that terrible things happened here.

 

Trouble: Once, a minor god of Winter was jilted by a beautiful dryad. In his despair and anger, he cursed the glade over which she watched to be forever in the grip of an icy blizzard. The PCs stumble across a copse of trees, perhaps 200 feet in diameter, caught in perpetual winter. AT its center is a dryad turned mad (Chaotic Evil in alignment) by her curse, who also had immunity to both fire and cold damage. Although she attacks any who come near her tree (she can cast Ray of Frost for 2d8 cold damage at will and Cone of Cold 3/day) she can be talked (DC 20 Diplomacy check; the check can be made DC 15 with a DC 15 History or Nature check first, revealing her story) into revealing the name of the offending minor God and from where it originates. Clever PCs might find a way to free the dryad, whether by destroying the lesser deity or by somehow blocking his influence. Failing that, if they destroy the dryad, the curse ends and natural seasons and weather return to the glade.

Wicked Wednesday: Traps, Tricks and Trouble

Although Dungeons and Dragons is and has always focused a lot of its energy, both in the rules and at the table, around combat, battles are not the sole challenge inherent in the game — even the most kick-in-the-door style play. Next to battles with goblins and specters and (of course) dragons, nefarious tricks, traps and other trouble have always played a large role in D&D. And while 5th Edition is no different, it would seem by reading the Lost Mine of Phandelver Starter Set adventure or the Hoard of the Dragon Queen mega-module that traps are limited to pts and tripwires, tricks are limited to secret doors and there’s little more troublesome than some odd fungi. It may be understandable to try and convey simple concepts like falling damage and the “poisoned” condition in introductory products, but I think it leaves the wrong impression: Dungeon Masters, newbies in particular, might not realize that traps, tricks and trouble are where they (as opposed to the game designers) really get to shine. These elements of adventure design are pure, malevolent creativity molded like clay into jaw dropping surprises and sweat-beading-on-the-brow tension, at least if they are done right.

 

What, What and What?

 

Let’s first define traps, tricks and trouble:

 

Traps are elements that are likely to cause some form of harm to the player characters, usually in the form of damage or other ill effects, that were engineered by some force within the context of the game world. This could be members of a lowly kobold tribe or the very God of Trapmakers herself.Traps might be mechanical or magical. They might be easily bypassed or terribly complex. In any case, a trap was created with an intent to harm.

 

Tricks are similar to traps except that they are not necessarily designed to cause harm and may in fact be beneficial in some way (and are often both). Like traps, tricks were designed and implemented by some force within the game world, though the original use of the trick may be far from what purpose it fills in the context of the adventure. For example, a fountain that changes the skin color of any who drink from it may serve as little more than a fun trick now, but when it was enchanted thousands of years before it might have been used as an oracle, with different colors associated with different astrological signs or fates.

 

Trouble, as I define it here, is a trap or a trick that was not created with intent within the context of the game world. A ceiling that collapses when a wire is tripped is a trap; a ceiling that caves in when a loud noise is made (ex: any thunder spell) is a trouble. Likewise, a sleep fountain in the temple of the God of Dreams is a trick, but a similar fountain located where the Prime and the Dreamlands touch is a trouble. This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but it does actually matter: engaged players will often note and even attempt to follow up on the story details traps, tricks and trouble add, and DMs who take a moment to consider those details will have a leg up in meeting that player expectation.

 

Bad Traps, Tricks and Trouble

 

First thing is first: it is important to define what kinds of traps, tricks and trouble are not good, that either slow down the game or create the wrong kind of tension (i.e. between the DM and the players). When done poorly, traps, tricks and trouble can derail a game session or even an entire campaign, create feelings of frustration and unfairness, and result in actual real world interpersonal issues(if you scoff at this, consider how intimate RPGs are: we not only allow other people into our daydreams but willingly give them the opportunity to screw them up). Even in the best case scenario, poorly designed traps, tricks and trouble are boring, adding nothing to the play experience and eating up valuable play time.

 

There are many ways this poor design can express itself, but here are a few basic categories:

 

They’re Irrelevant: Relevance is a dodgy aspect, especially in the sort of open world sandbox adventures D&D is so good at, but in this context it means that the trap, trick or trouble is meaningless. Whether the player characters overcome it or even encounter it at all makes no difference, either on a game play level (treasure or experience points, for example) or on a story level (it doesn’t say anything about the scenario or world at large). The falling rock trap in a dead end passageway is a perfect example of an irrelevant trap.

 

They’re Arbitrary: Player’s like agency, the ability to make meaningful, informed decisions for their characters that have consequences. Arbitrary traps, tricks and trouble rob the players of this agency by removing the element of meaningful and informed choice. Traps with no forewarning and/or that are impossible to bypass, which usually result in an unavoidable consequence or which can only be avoided by blind luck, are arbitrary in this context.

 

They’re Uninspired: By itself, there are few things more boring than a pit trap in a hallway. Even more elaborate and complex traps, tricks and trouble can feel uninspired if they have become an overused trope. Creativity can be a hard point to nail down, but use this rule of thumb: if the trap appeared in any Indiana Jones movie, either change it up to make it more original or leave it out entirely (unless, of course, you have players you are sure have never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which case use that rolling boulder!).

 

There are, of course, corner case examples of all sorts of bad traps, tricks and trouble, but those three broad categories cover the majority of problem examples, I think.

 

Next week, I will discuss what makes a good trap, trick or trouble, and produce a number of examples. As an aside, I missed Magical Monday this week simply because the idea I had and began work on turned out to be too cool rush through. Expect awesomesauce come next Monday!