Saturday, May 10, 2008

Adventuring Obstacles

In an effort to classify and differentiate the various obstacles encountered in the course of an adventure, be it in a dungeon, wilderness or urban setting, I present the following:

Magical: Magical Traps and Tricks.
Mechanical: Mechanical Traps and Locks.
Mundane: Features and Lay-out.
Physical: Melee and Role-Playing.

The Delver class can dice to avoid Magical obstacles.
The Thief class can dice to avoid Mechanical obstacles.
The Explorer class can dice to avoid Mundane obstacles.
The Pacifist class can dice to avoid Physical obstacles.

Nice and neat, and no grey area concerning what each player can and cannot do.

Any of the above four classes who reaches Level 5 may opt to instead pursue the Adventurer class, who simply arrives at the game session, rolls some percentile dice, and can either go back home, or stay and share pizza while he watches anime or performs funny voices for the referee.


Yes, once again you’ve deduced that I’m being sarcastic. The Thief, as presented, is a good idea handled poorly. Why? I don’t think there’s enough meat on those bones for a separate class. The end result was a step in the wrong direction for D&D. Suddenly, everyone assumes it’s OK to reduce important game play elements down to charts and dice rolls. An Adventuring Obstacle if ever there was.

Why not, then, take it one step further and reduce combat situations, perhaps game sessions, into simple charts and dice rolls? You can already do everything else by rolling dice. ROLL-playing does not engage the player nor does it promote critical thinking. Referencing my Empty Room Principle, this is therefore detrimental to the game. These are the true Adventuring Obstacles, those rules which hinder the adventure itself.

Certain things need to remain random, dice rolling is an integral part of D&D. I don’t think anyone would argue that rolling dice to determine hits, misses and damage is a bad thing. Dice rolling to AVOID game play situations is bad. The Thief finding a trap and removing that trap, simply with two dice rolls, is akin to avoiding melee by rolling dice.

Is there room for a Thief in D&D? Sure, a reworked version, one where I’d be tempted to rename the class and remove the blanket skills. Perhaps a sneaky, lightly armored adventurer, who relies on quickness of action and deception. Not some walking trap detector/deactivator. Much to the credit of my former crew, very few of them ever enjoyed the Gygaxian Thief. It was a boring, thankless job. They liked the sneaking around, stealing stuff part…that’s what a Thief should be.

Here’s a way to make your party forget about the Thief. Stop hiding your traps. Leave trap clues in spades. Things such as corpses, skeletons, bones, scorch marks, open pits filled with spikes, darts embedded in a wall. Clear and present dangers to begin the player interaction and problem solving process, the intriguing part of dealing with these obstacles that the presence of the Thief class has removed from play. Seeing and listening to the players sort out the ramifications of such clues, whether subtle or obvious, and how telling they are, is part of what makes coping with such obstacles fun. Too many hidden traps which go off unerringly, damaging the characters and slowly (or instantly) whittling away at their hit points and resources become something other than traps. Such traps become abstract, losing their identity, reduced to mere collections of numbers.

The very notion of removing elements of deduction and logical thinking is the antithesis of the Empty Room Principle. Spot check? Not on your life, unless you either tell me you are specifically looking for something, or I, as referee, judge that your character might have a chance, not a static number, of noticing something based upon the prevailing circumstances. The lone exception to this rule is the Elf sense secret door option given in the OD&D LBB. This is not an ability based chance, it’s just one of those quirky little Elf powers. I even rule that the Dwarf looking for Clues in Stone needs to be actively searching for such signs, and the roll is only required if I feel that there is a chance of failure. A Dwarf cannot simply run about in an underground setting with some “Rock Radar” that beeps every time a slanting passage or trap is encountered. Such a ruling would cripple many of the best Mechanical and Mundane elements of the dungeon.

Even cleverly hidden traps can have some tell-tale sign giving away their presence. How obvious these are is up to the referee, and is based upon the actions of the players at the time. If a player declares he is actively searching, whether due to a tell-tale sign or a hunch, the referee can, if he so judges, determine that there should be a random chance of success or failure. This style of play encourages critical thinking and logic on behalf of both player and referee.

In Solstice, I have identified certain delving tasks which players will frequently perform. These tasks are based on the examples which were spelled out quite clearly in OD&D’s LBB. I recommend simple d6 rolls, inspired by those first OD&D task checks. Certain classes and races might get a +1 bonus when such rolls are called for. None of these delving task conventions replace actual role-playing and logic. Except, as noted earlier, the Elf sense secret door option, which specifically states that the Elf has “become aware that something is there” simply by passing the area. By extension, it would behoove a referee to mix it up every once in awhile, so that the Elf player doesn’t immediately know that he has sensed a secret door. Perhaps he has indeed sensed a trap door, or some other not so obvious dungeon detail. Even then, the distinction is made that this power is used at the referee’s option. It’s not a black and white rule, merely an optional guide for use during game play, as are all of these d6 rolls. Will every single door require a d6 roll to open? Not in my campaign.

I’m often of the opinion that anything beyond the scope of Vol. I, Men & Magic, is supplemental and should be used as nothing more than a guide to OD&D. That includes the above referenced guidelines to play, and Monsters and Treasure. Men & Magic is the core rules of D&D. The rest is campaign flavor and play suggestions. Nevertheless, I enjoy such guidelines and use them as a suggestion on how to resolve certain situations. They do add some continuity to the game.

Many other fans of OD&D feel that the Thief is a more befitting archetype than the Cleric. I disagree wholeheartedly with this notion. One is performing mundane tasks, while the other is performing divine magic. Of all of the OD&D supplemental classes, I do concur that the Thief is the closest to being an archetype, while the rest are indeed subclasses of the standard FM-MU-C three pronged crown of OD&D.

There’s an interesting thread over at the OD&D discussion forum, with many thoughtful posts and opinions, concerning this very subject. In particular that FM are combatants, MU are casters, and Clerics are hybrids of the two. While in some ways this is true, the fact of the matter is that the Cleric is not simply a hybrid, because his repertoire of spells, and his ability to turn undead are both divine powers unique to the class.

Could someone allow a Thief, and still use the above as a guideline for the mundane tasks performed by such a class? Yes. But then, why introduce the class only to hinder it’s uniquely mundane skills? I’d vote for a sneaky, pilfering, backstabbing FM subclass over a Thief archetype, personally. I'd also vote to avoid Adventuring Obstacles presented as rules.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

The inspiration for this post is completely credited to Ben at Ars Ludi. I apologize for not giving him due credit originally. ~Sham.


Anonymous said...

I think your point about leaving clues for traps is a very good one. I'll take it to heart and start doing so. As a DM, I like traps and put them out in the dungeon. If there aren't clues, one of two things will happen:

1) Players will constantly be searching for traps which slows down things in and out of game.

2) Players don't search for traps constantly, fall into a pit and die. It's amusing at some level but often strikes a player as an "unfair" or pointless death.

More clues it is then!

Sham aka Dave said...

Exactly. I lean to the devious side myself at times, but it can be frustrating for the players. On the other hand, if they are being careless, they'll pay the price.

If you throw in enough dungeon trappings, even innocent mundane rubbish could possible make the players think 'trap'.

Also, the blanket statement, 'searching for traps' leads invariably to me asking, 'how, exactly, are you searching for traps?'.

I love pits and trapped false doors. I use them a lot. I need to take my own advice, as well, and allow even minor tell-tale signs here and there.

I think I finally have another topic for my Dim Expanse series!

Thanks for the comment, Wulfgar.