Monday, December 4, 2023

Mystifying and Dangerous

As any regular reader of this blog already knows, the very first D&D module I ever owned was In Search of the Unknown. One of the consequences of this is that, for good and for ill, it very soon became my mental model for what a dungeon should be like. More specifically, module B1 instilled in me an early love of tricks, traps, and secrets as integral elements of a dungeon. Nearly every room is Quasqueton contains one of these elements, whether they take the form of a forest of weird fungi, a set of false stairs, or the famous room of pools

The most important thing for me, then and now, is that the dungeon includes lots of things for the characters – and their players – to fiddle with and puzzle over. That's one of the great appeals of dungeon delving: trying to figure it out. Of course, it helps immensely when figuring things out brings with it a tangible benefit, like treasure or knowledge. There needs to be some kind of incentive to making the extra effort, just as there needs to be some kind of risk to balance it.
Volume 3 of Original Dungeons & Dragons contains the earliest advice to the referee in designing a dungeon. One of the most memorable bits of that advice is the following:
The fear of "death", its risk each time, is one of the most stimulating parts of the game. It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistent with a reasonable chance of survival (remembering that the monster population already threatens this survival).  
That comes very close to encapsulating the lessons I drew from reading In Search of the Unknown all those years ago. If you look at many of the earliest published dungeons, whether from TSR, Judges Guild, or appearing in the pages of Dragon and other RPG periodicals, you'll see they almost always include enigmas, puzzles, and traps of varying degrees of fiendishness. Indeed, I'd go so far as to suggest that these elements are integral to what a dungeon is.
Tom Moldvay's 1981 revision of the D&D Basic Set provides step-by-step instructions to the novice referee on how to create and stock a dungeon. If one follows those steps faithfully, approximately one-third of all dungeon rooms will contain either a trap or a "special," Moldvay's version of OD&D's "tricks." Specials aren't necessarily dangerous, but they're definitely odd and unusual. Moldvay gives several examples of specials, ranging from a "moaning room or corridor" to a "talking statue" to a "shifting block to close off corridor." 

I adore these kinds of dungeon elements. Anything that gets the players thinking about the dungeon, even simply as a play space, greatly appeals to my sensibilities. Old school D&D fans often say that the hobby was born in the megadungeon and, while there's much truth to that, I think it's just as true to say that the hobby was born in the challenge dungeon, which is to say, a space where the players matched wits against the referee in figuring out his puzzles and overcoming the trials he set before them. My appreciation for this style of play may explain why I've never hated The Tomb of Horrors as so many others have.
Over the years, I get the impression that tricks, traps, and secrets of this sort have become a lot less popular among players of Dungeons & Dragons, but perhaps that's mistaken. What I can say with some certainty is that, fairly early on in their existence, video games, especially since the advent of the personal computer, have taken up the idea of trials and secrets in a way that I find very reminiscent of early D&D challenge dungeons. That shouldn't come as a surprise, of course, since D&D's influence on the development of video games – and not just of the RPG genre – is immense. 

Still, I can't help but feel that dungeons are at their most fun for me when they include lots of riddle-spouting statues, giant chessboards, green devil faces, and deviously hidden secret rooms. A dungeon without such things will soon get boring and will never become a campaign tent pole of the sort that encourages return visits. I can't tell you how many hours I've poured into certain video games over the years trying to beat exceedingly difficult encounters or trying to locate some hidden chamber, often for very little in-game reward. There's no reason dungeons can't be like that, too.


  1. This is what attracts me to dungeons too, far more than combat. It's sort of back to the idea of the mythic underworld again. I do think that there's not a huge number of dungeons published by TSR that are like this. The original B3, and WG5 Mordenkainen's Adventure come to mind.

    I do think that there was a big drift away from this style of dungeon I to more story-focused adventures, certainly in the Hickman era.

  2. Kid me had no intuition about how these "special" rooms show work, so I have really spent decades wondering about this. In my original dungeon environments of today I have had many subpar ideas that never worked out at the table. Fortunately, people only seem to remember the ones that worked.

    My most inspired special room was "ancient high-level sorceress imprisoned in ice", riffing off of She and The Magician's Nephew. There was of course a control panel for unfreezing her in a secret room nearby. It was very satisfying to have the players revisit this room many times and debate what to do with it. I think after the sorceress was set loose some monsters even attempted to freeze the players into ice because they had observed the players using the controls.

    Some specials are not devised but just sort of emerge through play-- like when the players stashed a valuable flail snail shell in a secret room which was of course later sabotaged by an evil wizard with a "stick like glue" enchantment.

    Others are sleepers, dismissed as being uninteresting only to leap into the foreground when circumstances and a change in the player roster has occurred. I had these glowing rocks that absorbed spells cast nearby and then subsequently exploded. Many uses for these but in the chaos of the sessions the implications went past the more single-minded players who dominated the sessions. After six months of play these dumb items would end up having an almost Infocom-like fit to a couple of climatic events. Very astonishing!

    My advice on "specials" is to try lots of things and don't worry about what works and what doesn't. I mean, take your best shot and bring your a-game to dungeon design. But be patient! Your second-best idea may be the one that takes. Or ten of your ideas will completely miss the mark and have very little play value. Don't sweat it! If you are both patient and persistent, SOMETHING will eventually work so well that your players will think you are a dungeon design genius. It's the nature of the game! 

    1. >
      > "ancient high-level sorceress imprisoned in ice"
      That actually sounds like a great and fun thing to include in a campaign. I can already imagine me and the other players discussing whether we should attempt to 'unfreeze' her at all, as things like that rarely if ever work out for the better in your average B-rate horror movie. ;)

  3. Not a big fan of traps (especially hidden ones that also use instant death mechanics) unless they have a really good reason to be there. Strange architecture that only makes sense when carefully examined and fully explored is much more appealing, and mystery room features to puzzle over are always fun if there's a reasonably chance of reward rather than simple punishment for pursuing one's curiosity.

  4. I think one of the reasons most tricks and puzzles died out was the level of complexity kept rising, year after year, until it would get to the point where your whole game just stopped dead while the party tried to solve a puzzle.

    This hit circa mid-2E, when many of the writers at TSR were budding novelists. Another factor at the time was the introduction of puzzle splatbooks by third party publishers, with the kinds of puzzles and riddles that would be found in books designed for puzzle and riddle enthusiasts.

    Add this to plentiful puzzles and tricks that were just annoying and unsolvable by the information provided (such as the entire adventure, "Lost Isle of Castanamir), and you have a mass of players who no longer had any desire to encounter trick or puzzles ever again...

    1. This is a very plausible explanation. Thank you!

    2. A DM would basically have to announce beforehand that the adventure was going to be filled with traps and tricks like Tomb of Horrors to get players to buy in. Otherwise, players are just looking for a WOW-like combat encounter and would be very frustrated.