Monday, June 20, 2022

Dungeoncrawling Advice for Players

There’s been a lot of good, actionable advice for Referees to telegraph traps, create Jayquays loops, and keep accurate time records. I have seen less advice on how to play a character in an old-school way (although I think the teaching dungeons Tomb of the Serpent King’s and Lair of the Lamb have good player-facing advice). In fact, I think you’d agree that most advice about “play” is geared towards Referees. 

I’m interested in exploring how to be a good player. 

This post is in many ways a sequel to my Player Manifesto, here. 

“The (Egyptian) Book of the Dead is made up of a number of individual texts and their accompanying illustrations. … They served a range of purposes. Some are intended to give the deceased mystical knowledge in the afterlife, or perhaps to identify them with the gods … Others are incantations to ensure the different elements of the dead person's being were preserved and reunited, and to give the deceased control over the world around him. Still others protect the deceased from various hostile forces or guide him through the underworld past various obstacles.” 

- “The Book of the Dead”, Wikipedia

Art by Emily Cheeseman for His Majesty the Worm

As you explore you will find hazards that need to be navigated around, avoided, or retreated from. 

This is a game about interacting with the world as if it actually exists. Because RPGs are a conversation game, you explore the game world through asking questions. You can ask what your adventurer can see, feel, hear, etc. No need to roll dice–just ask what you can perceive and the Referee will answer you honestly. As the Referee describes things, follow up with specific questions to dig deeper into the game world.

The answer is not on your character sheet. There’s no list of skills or abilities to limit what you can do within the fictional world. Don’t ask “Can I make some sort of test to look for…” or “Can I roll to disarm…” Interrogate your surroundings by asking questions and state your character’s actions: the Referee will tell you if you need to touch the dice

That said, your character sheet might contain something you can use to your advantage! You might have an item, spell, or Talent that you can put to a clever use. Your success and your failure are defined by your ideas. 

Locked Doors

Some doors are locked. 

If the door has a keyhole, you might find the key on a dungeon denizen on this level. Keys tend to be coded: the copper key fits in the copper door, the mermaid-shaped key fits in the door painted with mermaids, etc. 

If the door has a keyhole, you can also try to pick the lock with lockpicks. Picking a lock with lockpicks requires a successful Dexterity check. 

You can also try to force a door. You might bash it down with a Strength check. A tool like a battering ram or crowbar gives you a bonus to this test.

Some doors can only be opened by some mechanism. You need to say a particular passphrase, twist the taxidermied moose head, depress all four pressure plates in the room, etc. If a door seems stuck, come back to it later. You might have more perspective on how to open it after exploring further. Ask dungeon denizens if they have any advice.

Secret Doors

Some doors are secret. These doors might be obscured (behind a bookshelf) or architectured to be all but invisible (stone doors that only open when you twist a candle sconce). 

You find secret doors by describing how you search for them. You can look at a wall to see if you can see any seams. You can tap on a wall to hear if it sounds hollow. You can look behind curtains, inside wardrobes, and under rugs to see if there’s anything there. 

Look at your map. Are there any gaps where a room would logically make sense? Look for secret doors there.

Look for patterns. Secret doors are hidden in places that make “sense” for them to be. If you find a secret door behind one portrait, search behind other portraits to see if there’s a pattern to be found.

If you don’t ask for specific information and simply say, “I spend as long as it takes to search the room for hidden doors,” the Referee can tell you if there’s a secret door but draws on the Meatgrinder to see if your torches gutter due to the time you take searching. 

Checking for Traps

Some doors, rooms, or passageways are trapped. You find traps by describing how you search for them. 

Open the door very slowly to feel if there’s a trigger in the hinges that activates a trap. Bend down and check to see if there’s a tripwire in the doorframe. Walk carefully to check if there are any pressure plates in the hallway. 

If you create a procedure like “We walk down the hallway tapping the floor in front of us with our ten-foot pole,” the Referee can tell you if you find any traps but draws on the Meatgrinder table to see if an encounter occurs as you spend extra time lingering in each room.

Dealing with Traps

Some traps might be unavoidable no matter how carefully you search. You decide how to deal with the traps you trigger.

Some traps will simply occur–the room begins to fill with water as soon as the door is opened. Other traps allow you to make a Saving Throw to avoid the worst outcome, e.g., you make a Save vs Death to grasp the edge of the collapsing bridge as it falls apart. 

The way you describe your actions when a trap is triggered will determine how the Referee adjudicates what happens next. 

Here are some examples. 

Example the First

As you walk down the hall, you step on a pressure plate. You hear a “CLICK!” as it sinks into the floor. You hear mechanisms whirring in the walls, like a machine spinning up. 

With a split second decision to make, you don’t have a lot of information to act on–but doing something is better than nothing.

What do you do?

Some suggestions:

  • Can you keep pressure on the pressure plate in case releasing it is the trap’s trigger?

  • Can you drop prone to try and avoid whatever is coming? Can you do so while keeping pressure on the plate?

  • Do you have a shield? Can you bring it to bear to protect yourself from potential threats?

  • Does somebody in your guild have the Aegis Talent? Can they use it for your benefit once the trap is sprung?

Example the Second

You find a door set into a frame resembling the face of a green devil. Inside the green devil’s mouth is a black hole. It’s not just dark, a literal void exists within the green devil’s mouth. 

What do you do? 

Some suggestions:

  • Discretion is the better part of valor. If you don’t need to deal with the green devil face, can you simply leave it alone?

  • If you need to deal with the face, are there any switches or buttons hidden? Can you press the eyes? Can you twist the horns?

  • Don’t interact with the void in the mouth with your bare hands. Throw a sling stone into it. Touch it with a staff at a distance. 

  • Does someone in your guild have the Counter-spell Talent? Does it have any effect on the face?

Example the Third

As the guild steps into a room, the door slams shut and locks. With a grinding sound, the east and west walls slowly begin moving towards each other, threatening to crush all within like a giant trash compactor. 

What do you do?

Some suggestions:

  • Was a guild member trapped outside when the door slammed shut? Are there controls anywhere they can use to deactivate the trap?

  • Do you have pitons in your pack? Can you drive them into the wall to slow or stop the walls’ advance?

  • Is the door flush with the wall? Is there any space in the door frame in which to hide yourself?

  • Can you search for a secret door? Is there a service panel on the walls? In the ceiling? On the floor?

  • Do you have a crowbar? Can you pry open the locked door?

  • Do you have a slime bomb? Can you throw it to Destroy part of the wall or the door?

  • Do you have the Enlarge spell? Can you cast it on a staff to turn it into a sturdy log that you can use to hold the two walls apart?

  • Do you have the Portable Hole spell? Can you cast it on the wall to see the mechanism beyond? Can you jam or disrupt the mechanism if you reach your hand through the hole?

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