Traps, Not Just for Ex-Girlfriends Anymore.

When I first started running Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) I tended to treat traps as an exercise in dice rolling to overcome the challenge I had placed before my players. There was the roll to detect the trap and then another roll to disarm it. All this rolling tended to make for rather dull gameplay.

In an effort to remedy all this tedium I started looking for more complex traps, such as those found in Grimtooth’s Traps, and began to describe them to my players in detail. We still rolled to determine the chance of success but by actually describing the traps it made them exciting in the game and players spent time discussing how to conquer the challenge the trap presented.

I got so wrapped up in the process that I started neglecting the traditional, banal traps: arrow, pit, door, and poison traps were all too mundane. This neglect resulted in me falling back into the old habit of rolling to overcome. I was dissatisfied with this aspect of my Game Mastering but then Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D 4e) was announced.

D&D 4e encouraged solving traps by rolling to overcome them so that the game could help mitigate Game Master (GM) manipulation. GM manipulation was, or so Wizards of the Coast’s marketing of D&D 4e told us all, a major problem for the hobby. The way I understood things, at the time Wizards of the Coast was arguing that GMs were circumventing the core mechanisms of the game by creating situations the required judgement by the GM rather than resolution by the dice. Now I was certainly guilty of this charge at the time, and still am today, but I wanted to give the new system a chance and whole heartedly adopted the approach that D&D 4e advocated by going back to where traps were resolved wholly with dice.

This approach left something to be desired, but what really pushed it over the edge for me was when I discovered Sersa Victory’s Fourthcore website (sadly no longer in existence). Here was a place that advocated for complex challenges where the players not only had to conquer some physical confrontation (such as an assault by a group of orks) but also had to defuse a trap before it went off and killed them all. It took the idea of rolling to resolve the trap situation and made it an exciting challenge for everyone involved and I absolutely loved it – though I was rarely able to pull it off as well as I would have liked.

When Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D 5e) came along I was already using these complex situations when running my dungeons but D&D 5e encouraged a different style of gameplay by encouraging players to overcome obstacles creatively rather than exclusively through dice resolution. It’s a nice change but it means that I’m having to rethink how I run those complex encounters.

One of the solutions that I’ve come up with is to take simpler traps, like pit traps, and to rethink how they operate. My standard way of thinking about the pit trap for years was that it occupied a whole 5’x5′ square of the playing field and that it was either deep enough that it caused harm to the players who fell in it or was occupied at the bottom by some further malady that would inflict harm on the players (such as a swarm of rats or sharpened stakes that would impale the players). There are other options available though.

Smaller Pits: It is possible to have a pit trap that does not fully occupy a single square of the play field. Instead it can partially take up the area of play and present a percentage chance of activating, thereby trapping a single character.

Conical Pits: These pits start out large at the top and then fall down to a very narrow center which is used to trap the player at the bottom. Used in conjunction with a flooding device or the release of some creature towards the player it can really heighten their anxiety in the situation.

The first time that I actually saw a conical pit in action was in the novel The Bloody Eye by T.H. Lain (this time a pseudonym used by Johnny L. Wilson). The book is largely unremarkable other than this scene:

. . . Krusk led the way with Jozan following immediately behind him. Yddith followed Jozan, while Alhandra and Qorrg covered the rear. Everyone felt confident as they walked carefully through the auxiliary tunnel. Then, Krusk felt something give way beneath his feet. A cracking sound accompanied the movement of the flooring, followed by he sound of loose earth. A patchwork of bamboo that had been overlaid with dirt gave way. Krusk reached vainly for something to grab hold of and failed to find it. He slid to the bottom of a rough pit about ten feet deep. He landed on his feet, but realized that his fall must have broken a conduit made of pottery. Water was rushing over him and rapidly filling the narrow pit.

As Krusk considered his situation, he realized how diabolical was the trap. Water, probably from the stream, was diverted into the conduit. When someone fell through the bamboo covering and broke the pottery seal, a portion of the stream ran directly into the pit. The pit narrowed at the bottom so that Krusk’s legs were tightly wedged between the walls. With so little room to spare, the well was filling rapidly. Worse, Krusk couldn’t move his legs and could barely shift his arms . . . (154-155)

The Bloody Eye by T.H. Lain

That’s the sort of thing that we need more of in adventures. A trap that really threatens a player’s character. Add in a few monsters to attack the party as they try to retrieve their fallen comrade you’ve got the making of a fantastic gaming moment that they’ll be talking about for weeks later.

Multistage Pit Traps: These traps are set off in segments. First a player falls into the pit, then as their fellow players attempt to save them a secondary trap is sprung which adds additional complications. My personal favorite is to have the players pulling their comrade out of the trap using a rope and letting the fellow clambering their way out trigger the falling rock trap above their would be rescuers heads by kicking the release which is set into the wall of the pit.

What other variations can you think of to the classic pit trap?

Works Cited
Lain, T.H. The Bloody Eye. Wizards of the Coast. 2003. USA. pgs 154 – 155 PRINT

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2019 is Here and I Barely Remember 2018

Just a quick, little post to help keep my goals in mind so that I can look back here at the end of 2019 and see how far I’ve come along.

2019 Goals

Cut my physical library down by at least half. A lot of these books are just taking up space and it’s time that I did something with them beyond just having them cluttering up my bookshelves and making my room look like a disheveled mess.

Finish reading The Essential Sartre. I’ve had this book in my library for the better part of the last twenty years and I’ve only cracked the cover a few times. I need to finish it this year or get rid of it.

Finish my prep for the Night Below Campaign and begin running it. I’ve been talking about this game for the better part of the last decade. It’s time to get through all the booklets, create my handouts, and get a group together to run this bad boy. It’s one of those games that people talk about like the holy grail and it’s time that I put it to the test.

Start running a game on Roll20. I’ve talked about wanting to run a game on Roll20 off and on for the last couple of years. I’ve got vacation coming up in a couple of weeks and I’m going to use part of it to learn how to operate the system and set up a regular game. When I’m ready I’ll put up an announcement on here to see who wants to play. If you’re interested be sure to keep a look out.

Finish teaching myself Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. I’ve been learning how to play AD&D 2e over the last few weeks so that I can run it for my wife. She learned on 2e and has been playing way longer than me, but her regular group died off about a decade ago. She’s been playing with me since but recently she started talking about how she missed playing 2e and so I thought it might be nice to play it with her. So far I’m really enjoying what I’ve learned and I’ll be talking more about that on here once I’m done working my way through the PH and DMG.

Finish learning how to play the Amazing Engine. I’m still working my way through the Amazing Engine. It’s only 32 pages – but they’re damned dull reading. Once I get through the last half of the rule book I can finish talking about how to play the game.

Finish the Lost Traveler. I’m working on a little game-ish thing right now called the Lost Traveler. You’ll be able to play it on the blog here once I’m done but there’s still a long way to go and I can’t publish any of it publicly until it’s all done. I’ll probably be up all night linking everything properly together but once I’m done it’s going to be cool.

Build and Publish a GM’s Guide to some of the Wizards of the Coast adventures. One of the things that I want to do this year is to work my way through one of the 5e adventures Wizards of the Coast has published and really build a cool toolkit for people to use in conjunction with it. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people are doing interesting things for Wizards’ adventures but I would like to put my own spin on things.

I want to play in a RIFTS game. I’ve been in love with this game for the since I first saw it way back in the 90s in an old comic book shop run by this crazy guy who believed that phones were just how the government managed to control us through these radio waves they broadcast during our conversations. Never found anyone who was willing to run it so since I just picked up a copy of the rules I’m thinking about learning it and running the damned thing myself.

I want to post regularly throughout the year on here. My goal with Dyvers was often to post daily. I don’t want that for this blog. Instead I just want to post regularly throughout the year again.

The Best Villains Money can Buy

I own seventeen monster manuals, tombs, and guides across a variety of systems and editions that now clutter up my gaming shelf – the vast majority of which haven’t been opened in years. The monsters that fill these volumes range from the common flesh and blood variety, so gauche, to clockwork creations that move about automatically and deliver a sterile, clinical death. 

I have demons, deamons, devils, extraterrestrial beings, reality shifting monstrosities, and even the odd elemental man. There are robotic dragons, electric men, ambulatory furniture, and sentient toasters. Tribes of goblins, gobbers, hobgoblins, bugbears, ogres, ogrun, and giants for every type of geological feature and weather pattern imaginable. 

Of dragons there exists one for every type of gemstone, both valuable and common; as well as, a dragon for every color found in a box of crayons. The are good, evil, misunderstood, and selfish assholes.

There are more than two hundred monstrous creatures than I can let my players play instead of making them villains but all of them must be outsiders, loners, rebels, shunned by their tribes, raised by a people different from their own, the exception to the rule, with gruff exteriors and hearts of gold.

Without question I have the best villains money can buy, and yet many of these books haven’t been opened but a few times since I bought them. Why is that?

Since I began playing Dungeons & Dragons, and have since expanded out to other role-playing games, I have used a fraction of the monsters in the books I’ve bought. Often many of the monsters left behind are either so situational that I haven’t had an encounter where their appearance in the game they made sense or they’re part of an endless reimagining of a common creature. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love to use orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins. I can’t wait to spring them on my players in unexpected ways and to have players who have struggled to reach epic level see a lone goblin down the hall only to hear them say, “Oh shit. It’s a goblin.” But when I look at a book of monsters and see yet another orc with some window dressing I get bored. 

Goblins from the movie Labyrinth. If you haven’t seen it check it out. You wont’ be disappointed.

A few years ago I decided that one of the things I was going to be doing as a Game Master was to take the humdrum, common creatures that we all see in the early levels and make them the sort of thing that my players get nervous about challenging. To do this I decided to start making low level creatures attack my players tactically. A narrow ledge went from being a tedious piece of window dressing into a great place for a swinging log trap and a kobold ambush. Low ceiling enclosures found swarms of goblins hiding behind every shadowy outcropping, stalagmite, and pile of rocks. 

I made the transition from my earlier style of Game Mastering (often characterized by an enemy that moved and acted predictably) slowly – something I still do when introducing new players to my style of Game Mastering – so that when I really took the gloves off they were ready for me to push them to their limits. I wanted my players to find the game challenging so that when they succeeded it felt like a meaningful accomplishment. To put it another way, if there is no chance for failure then there is no meaning in success. 

An Introduction to the “Amazing Engine,” the Role-Playing Game to Conquer Them All that Never Did

In the early 1990s the game studio that had brought the world Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), TSR Inc., found itself faced with a growing number of competitors who were often challenging the company for dominance in the role-playing game market. One of these competitors, Steve Jackson Games, had produced a wildly successful role-playing game called the Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS) which allowed players to play in any setting they imagined during any time period. GURPS produced a unique challenge to the dominance of TSR’s flagship game and as a result the company made the strategic decision to challenge GURPS by launching its own universal role-playing system: the Amazing Engine.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5535230

The Amazing Engine was designed to be a light framework of rules which would allow TSR to then sell robust settings through their “Universe Books” which would provide players with supplemental rules and with game worlds to explore. While this format was similar in concept to other universal role-playing systems it differed in one major way – the players earned the experience points and not the characters.

The system hinged on the idea of the “player core,” or as Karen S. Boomgarden described it in Dragon Magazine:

“. . . The player core is a shell, if you will, created by dice rolls. There are four pools into which the points go: Physique, Intellect, Spirit, and Influence. Each of these, in turn is split into two sub-categories: Fitness and Reflexes, Learning and Intuition, Psyche and Willpower, and Charm and Position. Once all these numbers have been rolled and assigned, and minor modifications (explained in the System Guide) have been made, you are ready to determine the Stamina points and Body points this core will have. These numbers for the basis, or core, for as many player characters as you care to make from this blueprint. All characters created from a single core have basically the same makeup; all are strong if the Physique pool has high numbers, all are ‘movers and shakers’ if the Influence pool contains the most points, and so on. That is not to imply that they’re the same character, however. Far from it . . .” 

Boomgarden, Dragon 195

This concept of a “player core” presented a significant shift from the way that traditional role-playing games dealt with character creation, experience, and the continuation of a player’s experiences with the game itself. David “Zeb” Cook elaborated on how the “player core” would further move from the traditional conceptions:

“. . . The AMAZING ENGINE system is more than just a collection of universes. In the AMAZING ENGINE system the advances a player character gains in one universe can be used to help player characters in another universe. Starting a new AMAZING ENGINE setting does not mean starting over from the beginning; this means players and gamemasters can experiment with the wide range of universes . . .”

Cook, System Guide

This idea of continuation from setting to setting is not all that dissimilar to such recent online experiments as the Flail Snails games where a character would play in multiple online games under a variety of Game Masters, regardless of rule system origin, and would grow accordingly.  Yet even with such tangential connections the idea that a “player core” could move from character to character, improving them as it went, was something uniquely special to the Amazing Engine. 

It was a concept ahead of its time.

The Amazing Engine would only be published for about a year and would produce nine books in total (one system book and eight setting books):  Amazing Engine System Guide (1993), Bughunters (1993), For Faerie, Queen, and Country (1993), Magitech (1993), The Galactos Barrier (1993), Kromosome (1994), Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega (1994), The Once and Future King (1994), and Tabloid! (1994).

If we judge the Amazing Engine by its sales then the system was a tremendous failure for TSR Inc.; however, if we discuss the game not in terms of sales, but rather in terms of its success as a game that provides players with a fun and exciting experience, then what would be the result?

That’s a difficult question as I’ve discovered few people who have actually played the system and developed enough of a relationship with the game to discuss it online. Now it could be argued that such a situation would point to the game being of poor quality but it is equally as likely that due to the game’s “player core” concept, and the time when it was published, that the game did not find a receptive audience within the role-playing enthusiast community which resulted in few people being familiar enough with the game to form a true opinion of it. The only solution then is to learn the system, explore a few of the setting books, and evaluate it under its own terms. Which is exactly what I will be doing over the course of the next few posts. 

I hope you’ll join me then.

Works Cited

Boomgarden, Karen S. “The Game Wizards #2 The little engine that could: the AMAZING ENGINE story.” Dragon Magazine, vol. 18, no 2, July 1993. pgs 41 – 42. DIGITAL  

Cook, David “Zeb”. Amazing Engine System Guide. TSR, Inc. USA. 1993. pg. 4 PRINT

Welcome to Dragons Never Forget

If you’re new to this blog, and if you’re reading this you almost certainly are, then I suppose introductions are in order. What you’re looking at is an eclectic mix of all the things that I find fascinating about role-playing games. You’ll find discussions of esoteric rules; polemics about my favorite aspects of various games; a slew of short stories, game reports, traps, tricks, and anything else that captures my imagination. 

I make no claims at being the authoritative voice on the hobby. I’ve found such voices to always be fraught with their own self-interest and enrichment. I only want to show you the things that I love in the hopes that you’ll love them too. So welcome to Dragons Never Forget, a place for me and you to talk about all the things we love in this hobby! 

panel from Wormy by David A. Trampier