Thursday, November 5, 2015

Courage of my Convictions - Death Trap Dungeon Speech

Go ahead, stick your arm in there, you know you want to...

So, earlier today I was reminded of my extended Killer GM Syndrome Rant... 

And now you're thinking, Zack you hypocritical asshole, you're the one who ran Grim World a few weeks ago, who posted a thought about jackasses making traps have consequences when they are disarmed, who is designing a Death Trap Dungeon as his part of the mega-dungeon to run for Extra Life (go donate if you haven't) and just posted a Facebook event for a Dread game where you included in the description "Fair warning, I'm hoping that this will be intense and nightmarish..." and linked to the Scott Walker/SUNN O))) song "Herod 2014" as the thematic inspiration which has been described thusly in the Quietus...

Take 'Herod 2014' for example, which is ostensibly about a mother hiding her firstborn from the king's terrible edict:
"She's hidden her babies away
"Their soft gummy smiles
won't be gilding the menu.
"The deer fly, the sand fly
the tsetse can't find them.
"The goon from the Stasi
is left far behind them.
She's hidden her babies away.

The potential to further explore Herod's slaughter of the first born is ignored, thankfully, in favour of a different kind of horror, one that is hard won and slow to reveal itself. And one that is explored with an efflorescence of vivid imagery:
"She's hidden her babies away
"And why bring them out
with no shelter on offer.
"The nurseries and creches
are heaving with lush lice.
"Bubonic, blue-blankets,
run ragged with church mice.
"The Havana has died
in the clam-shell ashtray.
"She's hidden her babies away."

And by the time we get to the 'punchline' - his vision is revealed as a retreat away from reality. A retreat away from sanity. A retreat away from existence itself. This horror is pure shock not schlock and Lovecraftian in its intensity:
"A R-e-a-c-h-i-n-g L-o-n-g A-r-m-e-d
vet ape
feeling hard
for a breech birth.
"I gaze up at the night,
at the asterisk's blazing,
"till they straighten,
and like tiny spines,
fall to earth.
"I bite down on this,
as I dance
and I pray.
"She's hidden her babies away."

And yeah, that's all true... I can't really deny that, what I can do is set expectations, as I think I tried to outline in my rant. So when I ran Grim World, I told my players that Death was a strong possibility, and that I wanted to see a PC die because I wanted to see just how Grim World made PC death cool. And the PC death that occurred in Grim World was cool, didn't happen because of me even, when the players figured out the ritual to stop Chaugnar required a human sacrifice, the Templar volunteered and through his Death Move became an unstoppable murder machine bent on stopping Chaugnar at any cost, which though it made it hard for me to build a challenging encounter with the Templar basically getting a critical hit on every roll, it was awesome and tied into the "Be a fan of the players’ characters" principle.
Similarly, for Dread, I'll do my standard Dread spiel on part of the fun being giving into the tension, intensity and horror of the game and that death is an expected part of the second half of the game. So then, consider what follows a rehearsal of my Death Trap Dungeon speech that I'll give on Saturday.

So this is a Death Trap Dungeon, what does that mean?

The dungeon I'm about to run is a Death Trap Dungeon, in the style of the infamous Tomb of Horrors and White Plume Mountain. What does that mean? Does it mean that I, as the DM, are just out to kill all your PCs? No, in the immortal words of Vince Baker from Apocalypse World.
I’m not out to get you. If I were, you could just pack it in right now, right? I’d just be like “there’s an earthquake. You all take 10-harm and die. The end.” No, I’m here to find out what’s going to happen with all your cool, hot, fucking kick-ass characters. Same as you!
What it does mean is that the dungeon will be:

  • Filled with deadly and often over the top traps. 
  • Have limited combat, but the monsters will also be gonzo and deadly.
  • Have many elements of puzzle solving and trickery, left by the dastardly villains who created the dungeon, possibly intending the entire dungeon as a trap.
  • Be filled with treasures both fantastic and cursed. There will be treasure here to loot, but some of it might be cursed or otherwise trapped.
Let me emphasize again, while my goal is not to kill all the PCs, the dungeon is meant to be deadly and I will not pull punches the way I would in an ongoing campaign or a more "realistic" dungeon. I will also be running things a little differently, making some of the rolls for your characters when you would not know the outcome. 
  • When the outcome would not be immediately apparent to a PC, I, as the DM, will roll the dice.
  • For example, if a fighter is trying to jump a chasm, the outcome will be immediately apparent, whether the player rolls a 20 or a 1, the outcome of either will happen immediately.
  • On the other hand, when the Cleric examines an evil shrine drawing on her religion or the thief attempts to disarm a trap or the ranger scans the hallway for pit traps, those outcomes will not be immediately apparent and so the DM will roll behind the screen and narrate what the PC believes they know. 
    • The cleric will be told what demon she thinks the shrine is dedicated to
    • The thief will hear the click that she thinks means the trap on the door is disarmed.
    • The ranger will be told that she sees there is a pit trap 10 ft into the hallway.
  • Then, the true outcome will be revealed once the players decide to act on their knowledge.
    • The cleric does the appropriate cleansing ritual and the shrine is destroyed.
    • The fighter walks through the door and discovers the thief did not manage to disarm the trap after all.
    • The ranger guides the party successfully over the pit trap in the hallway.
  • There will not be any "generic Perception checks". That is, there will not be any "I look at the room and make a Perception check" rolls. 
  • For many things I will use passive Perception to determine which characters might spot something.
  • For active searches, it will rely on narrative descriptions by the player. The more specific the better.
    • If there is a pit trap in the hallway, the player of the Ranger can't just say "I search the hallway" then I'll rely on their passive perception, just like if they hadn't said anything.
    • If the player of the Ranger says "I search the hallway for traps" I might make a roll, but I'll probably still use passive perception.
    • If the player of the Ranger says "I search the hallway for pit traps" I'll make a check for them behind the screen.
    • If the player of the Ranger says "I search the hallway for traps, paying close attention for any grooves in the ceiling or floor for trap doors or pressure plates" then I'll make a check for them behind the screen, possibly with advantage or I might decide that their character is paying enough attention to spot the tell tale signs of the groove in the floor where the pit trap is.

Wait, there's a good chance my PC could die and also I won't know right away if I really found the trap or know the arcane secret behind the silver skull I examined? Why will this be fun?

Yes, the dungeon will be deadly and yes, you may not know right away if your character spotted all the traps or has the true secret, but I think this will still be fun and here's why:
  • Yes, it's deadly, so if your PC survives it will be awesome. It's not a perfectly balanced three room dungeon designed to provide a level appropriate challenge, it's going to be deadly, you'll need to be clever as a player and perhaps lucky as a PC to survive. This means that instead of afterwards being "ho-hum, we beat the orc chief, eye of gruumsh and 7 orc warriors because that encounter was perfectly calibrated to be 125xp over the XP budget for a 'Hard' encounter" you'll have a story about you were just about to die and then you got a critical hit on the gigantic Dragon Turtle right before it could use its boiling hot steam breath on you again. Or how at the last moment you had a second thought about the pool of crystal clear water and tossed a coin in instead of your hands and that's how you discovered it was a gelatinous cube.
  • Yes, it's deadly, but if your PC dies, it's going to be awesome. Your PC isn't going to die because some Orc mook got a lucky hit. Your PC is going to die because you held the line against the Pit Fiend or because they sacrificed their life to break the wall holding back the lava to flood the tunnel before the Purple Worm came up to devour the entire party. Even if it's a trap, I promise you, your PC's death will be metal as hell, more Radioactive Man screaming "the goggles, they do nothing" as a tidal wave of acid washes over him than pricking your finger on a needle in a chest and dying of lame venom.
  • Yes, you won't know if you have the full answer, the full lay of the land, the location of all the traps, but then you'll get to be a courageous hero. Having the eagle-eyed ranger with a WIS bonus of +5 and advantage on perception walk into every room and seeing the dice rolled, knowing that one time when they roll a 1 and 2 and you know they failed, how boring is that? Srlsy. Supaboring. Instead you can go through the dungeon boldly, knowing that you're courageous, braving danger instead of knowing that every last crack and crevice has been vetted by a preternaturally perceptive other.
  • Yes, you won't know when you perceive everything, but since perception checks will be based on the narrative you give me of where your PC is looking instead of just a dumb luck die roll it will be because you, yes YOU, thought to check the well shaft and drop a torch down, sending the evil, sentient shadows scurrying for a moment and giving the party notice that they were about to be ambushed instead of just being like "oh, I rolled a 19, guess I know".
  • Yes, it will be gonzo and over-the top, but you'll have a story about fighting a vampire in magical darkness, hiding in its coffin when the crazy wizard in your party shoots off a fireball blindly in the room. Or sure, you'll have a cursed sword that shouts "Allons-y" every time you draw it, but you'll have a story about how you fought a swarm of giant crayfish and tricked an Ogre Magi to get that damned sword.

Ok, that sounds kinda cool, but why should we trust you on this?

Because I try my best to run games by a set of principles. For this Death Trap Dungeon, I'll be stealing my principles from Dungeon World and Critical Hits so as your PC navigates the Death Trap Dungeon you'll know that I'm following these precepts:


  • Portray a fantastic dungeon
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure and danger
  • Play to find out what happens


  • Come up with possibilities, but leave final choices to chance
  • Address the characters, not the players
  • Embrace the fantastic
  • Make a move that follows
  • Never speak the name of your move
  • Give every monster life
  • Name every person
  • Ask questions and use the answers
  • Be a fan of the characters
  • Think dangerous
  • Begin and end with the fiction
  • Think offscreen, too
  • Great risks merit great rewards
  • Embrace player agency and knowledge
  • Rule in favor of the players but never fudge
I'll try to post at least few updates on twitter as I run from 12pm-3pm CST, so you can follow just the dungeon with the hashtag of "TrueTombofIsidore" or all my playing and running for the day on my twitter handle @thatwordyguy.

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