Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Elevator Deaths

Early D&D play seemed to be possibly more about exploration/ navigation than fighting monsters. Consider the OD&D "Sample Map of Underworld Level" (Vol-3, p. 4-5). Of the several keyed locations, there seem to be only 4 monsters (and addressed in throwaway parenthetical terms, such as "...let us suppose a basilisk"). Meanwhile, there are something like 15 different navigational tricks such as sloping passages, shifting rooms, transporters, false stairs, etc., all of which send players to some other location against their will and block their return. The list of Tricks and Traps on p. 6 is similar: 7 of 10 tricks there function in some way by sending and trapping players in another part of the dungeon.

While fun to think about, you have to be careful with this kind of stuff and use it in moderation, particularly with traps that send players unwillingly to a lower level. Obviously, this has two major risks associated with it: (1) It increases the danger level of the monsters encountered from what the players had originally planned for (by about a doubling factor per level, in my rough estimation of the OD&D monster ecology), and (2) It simultaneously makes retreat and recuperation impossible until players discover some previously unknown access up and out of the level in question. (You could almost argue that a trap sending players up would make for better game balance; or perhaps the drop-downs are better suited for a reversed tower-of-death, perhaps.)

Interestingly, with some playtests of DMG Appendix A I find that the vast majority of deaths (in fact, practically all of them) are predicated on being caught in one of the several "Elevator Rooms", shunted to a lower level, and unable to ascend again before attrition and some powerful monsters take their toll. Note that unwilling, irrecoverable descent trickery composes 20% (4 of 20) of both Tables VI and VII (Stairs and Trick/Traps); and compounding this is the fact that there are relatively few entries with possibly ascending stairs. (Consider also the trio of traps in the old Dungeon! boardgame with the same function, and similar great difficulty.) I now recommend replacing some of those "Elevator Room" entries in Appendix A with other, less completely fatal trap possibilities (for me now: 5-in-6 get replaced by "Passage behind blocked by falling bars"). In your hand-crafted dungeons, you should probably pre-plan exactly how close players will be to a way back out after any transport-to-a-lower-level trap, or else you may be creating what's effectively a deathtrap without realizing it.

T. Foster also recently pointed out that the earliest version of the Dungeon Geomorphs product included the recommendation from Gygax that "Slanting passages, teleportation areas, slides, and the like should be added sparingly thereafter -- one or two such items per level is a fair guideline" (although the latter clause was edited out in later versions). That seems like good advice from learned experience, and bolsters the need to update Appendix A -- by default, I seem to get around 3 or so of these tricks per page of 34x43 graph paper, and that's not even with rooms nearly as densely tiled as in the Geomorphs product.

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