Thursday, May 14, 2015

Keep Dungeon Threats Threatening

This post is going to assume some things about dungeon crawling.  Namely, that exploring a dungeon is just as complex, tactical, and interesting as combat.  It only applies to games where dungeon crawling is a major facet of the adventure (think Torchbearer) and one that I enjoy having in my games.  If you don't want dungeon crawling (with resource management) to be a major mode of gameplay, this post is not for you.

There are things that I try to limit or remove entirely from my games.
  • darkvision
  • water-breathing
  • flight
  • see invisibility
  • detect secret door
  • immunity to poison
  • immunity to disease
I'll never include a trident of water-breathing in my loot piles*.  You'll never come across herd of grazing pegasi.  (Fuckin' animals, man.)  And my dwarves don't even have darkvision.

I want things like darkness and and drowning to remain threats.  Because as soon as everyone has access to darkvision, one of the big mechanics of dungeon exploration—light—is no longer an issue. The dungeon has become less complex and less interesting.

pic by noah bradley
If light removes the threat of darkness, water-breathing removes the threat of drowning, and flight removes the threat of falling into a pit, what is left? Not much. 

Light : Dungeon Crawling :: Ammunition : Combat

Dungeon crawling is a mode of gameplay that is just as complex and interesting as combat. If you remove the teeth from some of the failure mechanisms in exploration, you've made your game a lot less interesting.

 For the same reason, I wouldn't give a player a suit of armor that makes them immune to all HP damage.

If I did, I'd have to rely on other forms of combat to provide texture and menace (ability score damage, save-or-die effects) but those have their own problems, or they are harder to visualize. HP, and the threat of HP loss, serves a very specific role in combat. The replacements aren't as satisfying.

And if I can't rely on spiked pits being a threat anymore, I'd have to replace it with what?  Force fields? Anti-magic zones?

And there's something to be said about the scale of low-level threats. A 10' drop with spikes on the bottom sounds fucking awful in real life; it should be awful in-game as well. You don't have to read the D&D rulebook to know that falling off a 90' cliff is going to kill you, or that you'll drown if you fall off the boat while wearing plate mail. The threat-of-falling-to-my-death is intuitive and natural, and I love that. The threat-of-getting-caught-in-a-teleport-trap doesn't have the same impact.

That's why I'll never give out a flying carpet with unlimited uses as loot. I want my deadly pit of spikes to be a deadly pit of spikes, not just solved equation.

I don't want these threats to be plateaus that are reached and then forgotten behind us.

I'm not saying that we should get rid of all the fly scrolls in our game, just that we shouldn't give the entire party flying boots.  And everburning torches can go fuck themselves.

I'm not arguing for a game that does away with levels.  Players can still increase in power numerically all you want.  Linearly, exponentially, whatever.  As long as they never get access to items or abilities that let them cheaply negate the need for a light source, or ignore the need for air.

Nor am I recommending a game where players never learn new abilities.  You can still gain the power to stop aging, teleport to the nearest princess that needs rescuing, deal damage on a miss, turn corpses into bombs, turn bombs into slavish automata, and transform into ogres with cannon hands.

Nor am I advocating for a low-power game, or a gritty game.  You can still be epic.  You can still shoot fireballs that deal 15d6 damage. You can still kill the nega-princess and save Satan.  As long as your players still fear darkness.


I'm sort of moving away from 'HP is slow to recover and you should get magical healing' to an 'HP is easy to recover, but you can get lots of permanent injuries' because I want to move away from HP as something that is overcome  and then forgotten.  (And traditionally, HP has been a solved equation for a long time.  The solution is a cleric stacked with healing magic.  It's not fun or interesting being the party's healbot, but that's the tax that's required to overcome this particular plateau.)  The nice thing about giving parties lots of free healing is that it diminishes the need for a healbot.  And the nice thing about a system with permanent and long-lasting injuries that it maintains the threat-of-being-stabbed-to-death.

*This is a lie.  I've definitely let people play races/class that can breath under water.  Or even fly.  But hypocrisy aside, the theory is sound.  Obstacles need to remain obstructive.


UPDATE: The next bunch of paragraphs is in response to a smart thing that +Mateo Diaz Torres said, which was that abilities that let characters bypass core dungeon hazards could be balanced by giving the characters other weaknesses.

If everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, that's great. Part of the game, even. But if everyone has a different immunity, they can bypass a lot of the threats that I want to keep threatening.

If I put a pit trap in the dungeon, I want it to be threatening. I don't want to have to metagame my players, thinking about what immunities they have. Then I have to build an encounter around that, just to challenge them.

Sure, the fairy takes double damage from silver, but when the party gets to the Indiana-Jones-Spell-The-Name-Of-God-Or-Fall-To-Your-Death puzzle, the fairy just flies across and grabs the key. Or the party finds the weird fungus and they send the dwarf over because he's immune to its spores. And then they fall in the water, their torches go out, and the whole thing is easily overcome because the elf can see the safe island right over there and the fish-man can go down and help the fighter out of his plate mail.

When I'm designing a dungeon, I want to be able to rely on certain assumptions of what is and what isn't threatening. Darkness and drowning should be consistently threatening, no matter how many other drawbacks you give the players. That should be a threat that's consistent across all characters.

Like, imagine if people started showing up to your FLAILSNAILS games who were all immune to damage. Sure, their movement rate is 3", get half XP, and die if sunlight touches them (they're vampire snail people, okay?) but those drawbacks don't matter when they walk through your dungeon without being challenged. This is because you built your dungeon with the assumption that HP damage would be a valid threat.

And so when I write my dungeons for my characters (and I usually let them play whatever they want, even flying fairies) I try to operate on the assumption that darkness, drowning, and sudden drops are all threatening. And that's a consistency I'd like to have in my system.


  1. how are you handling permanent injuries?

    1. This PDF is slightly out of date, but, pretty much like this:

      You heal to full HP when you eat lunch (requires an uninterrupted hour). And you heal to full HP when you sleep for the night. Nothing happens when you drop to 0 HP, but any damage in excess of that requires a roll on the Death and Dismemberment Table, which has maiming and other horrible shit, along with the time it takes to heal naturally. Magical healing can accelerate these times greatly.

  2. I like to have them drown in quicksand, food, or ooze monsters. Also flight or water breathing isn't so bad if only one party member has it.

    1. True. If somebody can see the path through the darkness, they can share this information with the party and it's like it was never dark at all. The same can't be said for crossing a spike pit- if one player can cross, it doesn't help the others.

    2. Thinking about it some more, I've concluded the distinction between this being a big problem and a not problem is whether the character's ability solves the problem for the other characters. Flying across a spike pit doesn't help anybody else get across (without some clever thinking) but flying up to hit a switch, solves the problem for everybody.

  3. Do you incorporate temporary stat damage into your game? And if so, how do you handle healing for it? Time spent or magical healing?

    1. I try to keep stat damage relatively rare, as recalculating stuff is sort of tedious and it takes the player out of the game, a little bit. But each stat heals 1 point per day, unless the restoration spell is used.

  4. This is a very interesting and thoroughly-considered post, but I still feel that you leave a lot of holes in your arguments. Please allow me to respond on the theoretical level.

    Opening disclaimer: the great thing about not just “this game” or gaming as a whole but hobbies is that anyone can simply find their sweet spot and indulge in that to their heart's content. There is no wrong way. Even things other people find boring or dumb or weird or too gonzo, if group A likes that stuff, then group A gets to play that stuff. So if your group is cool with this play style, then more power to you!

    (I think your opening paragraph does a decent, if indirect, job of setting up this consideration.)

    That said, there's a big gap in your argument right at the start. You say “If light removes the threat of darkness, water-breathing removes the threat of drowning, and flight removes the threat of falling into a pit, what is left? Not much.” But is that actually true? Less is left, yes, but “not much” seems more like a failure of imagination than a universal truth. There are traps of varying levels of complexity, mazes, puzzles, riddles, weird magic, weird plants and animals, extreme heat and cold, acid, hostiles in open or in ambush, non-hostile denizens to negotiate with, interesting things to tinker with and investigate (like a lot of the stuff in the cabin in Death Frost Doom) and so on and so forth.

    Even plain old dungeon mapping can become part of the challenge, with patterns in the map revealing secret rooms. Even focusing on dungeon exploration as an end unto itself, it sounds like your game would benefit from simply expanding your repertoire.

    I question darkness as a “threat.” Darkness by itself isn't a threat. It simply decreases your awareness of actual threats. And when your players have access to fireballs and lightning bolts and summoned servants and the party vanguard has plate armor and lots of HP, I'm not sure that the need for someone to carry a torch in one hand or the torch's limited light radius, will be the same “threat” that they were when everyone was a fragile ill-equipped level-1 character.

    To put it another way: a team of PCs that can slay the nega-princess won't "fear darkness." It'll just mean extra bookkeeping.

    On that note, you mention HP-loss-negating armor as something that would reduce your options to make combat threatening. Very well, but that's hardly a game-breaker. Here's a thought experiment: if you set your PCs against an opponent wearing that armor, will they mindlessly continue to attack ineffectively until they're all dead?

    No? What will they do? Okay, take the tactics you just thought of and have intelligent opponents in your dungeon use them against the PC wearing that armor. Sure, PCs with magic armor will cut down mindless enemies more easily... but the same can be said of PCs who use missile weapons at range. Are you going to forbid bows and arrows too, and require hand-to-hand combat, just to make sure combat threat is never reduced? Of course not – you're going to reward player resourcefulness by letting them succeed more easily than you had anticipated.

    (You do reward player resourcefulness, I assume. But doesn't that also mean that e.g. if player invents a portable bridge with interlocking tower shields, that the party has a way to bypass your pit traps?)

    1. You're right. I am addressing a certain type of game play. I like dungeon crawling, and I'm giving dungeon crawling my own definition of "exploration tactics and resource management in a confined space".

      I've been caving a couple of times. The biggest cave was Labyrinth, in the Lava Beds National park, in northern California. At one point I was one mile (mostly horizontal) from the entrance. The things that struck me most was (a) how important it was to have a good map, and (b) how utterly, desperately we needed that light. Each of us carried 3 light sources, which is pretty standard for caving.

      I want that in my D&D game.

      Other people don't, and that's fine. It *does* feel a little bit unheroic to worry about light sources, or to grope around in the dark. Lots of people don't enjoy dungeon crawling and that's fine. All they have to do to excise it from their game is to stop tracking rations, light sources, an ammunition. Buy bags of holding. Get some rings of feather fall. Get some everburning torches. By 5th level, these things should be behind you.

      My dungeons have puzzles, riddles, and tricks. Ravenloft had that wonderful trap where it caused one player to switch places with a ghoul in a different room. That was a good one. But those things are NOT dungeon crawling, because dungeon crawling is a game of resource management. Puzzles, riddles, and tricks are just events that happen in the process of exploration. Put the teleporting ghoul trap in the middle of the highway instead of the dungeon and the results are pretty much the same.

      I can define combat as "combat tactics and resource management in a violent contest". If you don't enjoy combat, remove HP from the game by level 5, because part of the game's assumption will then be that the PCs are badass enough to overcome all combat challenges at that point.

      And if you don't enjoy dungeon crawling, remove the need for torches from the game by level 5, because part of the game's assumption will then be that the PCs are badass enough to overcome all darkness challenges at that point.

      Yes, tracking torches is bookkeeping. So is keeping track of HP, or daily spells expended. I think all 3 of those things are exciting.

      Torchbearer can pull it off. Why not D&D?

      You expect leveling up comes with a power increase that makes darkness trivial. I don't. Lots of video games will have a character who powers up enormously over the course of the game, but still dies instantly when the fall down a bottomless pit. This isn't a limitation of the medium--the programmers could just as easily made an equippable item that allowed you to escape from a deadly fall, and made some cost or trade-off that made it an interesting choice, but they didn't. It's not an oversight. It's part of a design decision to keep bottomless pits threatening over the course of the entire game.

      And while intelligent creatures might start using nets and capture tactics against a party who is immune to damage, they're probably going to be a lot less effective. And dungeons stocked with mindless undead or constructs will be completely neutered. And if there was a game that assumed that parties would be immune to damage by level 5, that would be a design choice, because tracking HP is "just bookkeeping" to them, and they'd rather focus on other aspects of the game. And that's fine. You can have fun however you want.

    2. Also, I guess I should spell this out more explicitly:

      I am not proposing to ban methods of overcoming dungeoneering threats. I AM proposing to ban methods that are easy, cheap, automatic, and expected.

      Like, by 3rd level in Pathfinder, it's assumed that the party is going to have bought enough everburning lights that each of them can strap two of them to their heads. Darkness is a threat for only 2 levels, but it's the most salient feature of caving (at least in my experience).

  5. Going back to light: even if you forbid light spells, isn't the limit sort of arbitrary? If torches are your norm, then why not preserve an even greater threat level by dropping the norm to candles, easily blown out and with a tiny light radius? If you want to keep the threat from being reduced, then do you also forbid lamps and lanterns? Isn't drawing the line at magic kind of arbitrary when there are mechanical actions the players can take that also reduce or eliminate your pet "dungeon threats"?

    Maybe the part that bothers you is that torches can run out but Continual Light technically doesn't. (Ignoring antimagic zones, thaumavoric creatures, kobolds that like stealing shiny enchanted rocks, etc.) But if the issue is resource management rather than light radius, then are you saying that your players really enjoy checking off torches on their equipment list? Because there are plenty of ways to check off boxes besides simple light sources, and to be honest the box-checking business is not an integral part of dungeon exploration, nor is dungeon exploration the best way to get your resource-management fix.

    As Brendan points out, your view contrasts strongly with the way the game is straight-up designed to allow some challenges to be phased out as “solved problems” while new challenges arise. And this is in part because even fun things can get boring if you repeat them often enough.

    Yes, pit traps are a challenge. But sooner or later your players are going to have a routine for dealing with them. Even with no flight or other magical transportation, they're going to have the thief pole-vault across, nail down a rope bridge while archers give cover, and get the party across safely. (Or whatever.) If you make them explicitly describe the entire process every single time, then the PCs will start to hate pit traps (or you), because it's nothing more than busy-work at that point. But if you don't make them describe it, then it's a hand-wave.

    If the non-magical pit-crossing is either a hand-wave or busy-work, then it's no longer a “threat.” And since it's not a threat, then why do you care whether they cross it with a practiced routine or a flying carpet? The result is identical.

    You can try to liven things up by springing other surprises on them during the process, but 1. you can't do that every time or else it starts to feel cheap, 2. it just means their routine will grow a step more complex (and annoying to have to describe), and 3. you're being forced to expand your repertoire to provide more complex challenges, which is exactly what you'd have to do in the face of magic use anyway, as I pointed out earlier.

    Again, let me say – if your players are happy to have to count torches and spike down ropes, invoke your hand-waves or perform your busy-work, even at level 20, then by all means carry on. But I simply cannot take your advice when it comes to designing my own dungeons and running my own campaigns, because even focusing on dungeon exploration, using the same challenges and limitations forever and ever, even after the player response to them has become routine, is not my preferred play style.

    Finally, let me mention that while, for example, a flying carpet might take some of the teeth out of pit traps in the dungeon, isn't that loss balanced out by a gain in the players' ability to do interesting things? I seem to recall someone suggesting that it's okay to give players potentially game-breaking magic items, even if that "makes certain encounters trivial," because of the payoff in making the game more "interesting."

    Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking essay. And if you've read all the way to this point, thanks for your time and your consideration. Keep up the good work! 8^)

    1. Yes, it bothers me that Continual Light never runs out. Because it solves the problem entirely and cheaply.

      In my Pathfinder game, we hated tracking inventory, so I let them buy some bags of holding. Problem solved. They were having fun--they didn't have to worry about dungeoncrawling anymore. It was a mode of play that they didn't enjoy.

      So, the theory of evolving threats goes like this: LOW LEVEL THREATS -> MID LEVEL THREATS -> HIGH LEVEL THREATS.

      I don't enjoy that progression. I don't like waiting to high levels to deal with awesome things. I don't like phasing things out.

      My theory is different. It goes like this: ALL TYPES OF THREATS ALL THE TIME.

      Assuming that you'll face low-level threats at low levels seems like laziness, or a lack of creativity.

      I couple of weeks ago I published a dungeon for level 1 characters called the Meal of Oshregaal. Threats that it included: losing your soul by gazing at an astral peacock, getting two characters fused together (while only one of the players gets to control the resultant person), getting trapped atop a cursed bed that kills you if you get off it, torn in half by Nyarlathotep, burned by the light from a holocaust candle, die from having your shadow killed, mutated by chaos wine, suffocating in a vacuum, and dissolved by eating a tiny version of one of the other players. So I hope it's obvious that I'm not limiting myself to the threats of "running out of torches" and "losing all your HP and dying". To be fair, it's not a very dungeon-crawly dungeon, but the threat is still there. It's possible to run out of light sources. That's part of the time constraints of the dungeon, and I enjoy that, as a player.

      I am not fixated on "darkness-as-a-threat". I merely think that it shouldn't be removed from the game. I want as many cards in my Deck of Horrible Things as possible. I want the player's experience to be varied, rather than restricted.

  6. I endorse Arnold's approach. I hate continual light and create food - banished them for good and the game experience has improved. In my stone age campaign light consists of torches and if a Shaman has taken the moon specialty a limited ability (2-5 times per day - it goes up per level) to create a silvery radiance - that is it. Torches are assumed to be an item, the tracking is done by the DM every time a search is conducted or a new chamber is entered I roll a d8 (1=wandering, 2=torch item exhausted). In non combat relighting torches is automatic but in combat, the Pcs must make a skill roll (flame master). A recent combat occurred in a dark room, the PCs could not relight their torch and suffered predation from a foe that could see in the dark. Now DARKNESS is feared as it should be. The party carries 4 to 6 items of torches at any one time, representing about 10% of their carrying capacity.

    Quick non magical healing+permanent injuries is also great. At zero HP or if a characteristic reaches zero PCs roll on the Death and Dismemberment table leading to permanent injuries. PCs actually last longer with this in place but are reduced in effectiveness over time as they lose fingers, arms, legs, suffer lingering wounds, head wounds etc. They come back to the tribe's hearth and proudly recant their adventures, literally displaying their new scars and remaining limbs. I don't mind if they want to retire a much reduced PC either. Story wise it is nice to have retired PCs hanging out at the hearth crafting weapons with their remaining scarred limbs whilst a fresh healthy newbie goes off to advance the clan. Way better than cleric healbots and reincarnation/restoration.

  7. Excellent post. I fully agree and have removed darkvision and other cheap solutions you mention from my game, too. I wish I had not handed out a bag of holding, though. =/

  8. I've been thinking about this post for awhile, and I apologize for necro'ing this, but I was curious how you felt about things like scent, manual echolocation, etc?

  9. With regard to the seven bulleted abilities listed at the top of the post, perhaps ban them as permanent, innate character abilities, but allow them as magic items with a limited number of charges (I can use my Wand of Flying, but only twice). Even better perhaps, combine limited charges with just-in-time determination of the number of charges (as discussed in another post on this blog) so that the PC is never sure whether the next use will be the last use. Or, perhaps even better, combine limited charges with just-in-time EFFECT DURATION, so, yes, you can use your Wand of Flying, but every ROUND you must roll to determine whether the effect ends (and you fall out of the sky). The DM can vary the threat level by varying the per-round probability that the effect comes to an end. Wand of Invisibility? Roll each round to determine whether you suddenly become visible again. Want to maintain high threat? Make the prob 3-in-6 per round that you become visible again. Lower threat? Make it only 1-in-6 that you become visible again. These options would allow players to dabble with these fun abilities while allowing the DM to keep the threat level relatively high (or at least uncertain).

  10. Regarding darkvision, switch it to infravision--they can only see differences in heat, and limit it to, say, 30 feet. Then, in a dungeon setting, they can see the "warm" orc in the room, but they can't see the table or treasure chest in the room, if they are the same temperature as the surrounding walls/floor. Justify infravision with "it allowed them to find food underground in the distant past when the species was evolving," or something like that. Or, allow "imperfect" darkvision or infravision that gives "false positives;" that is, you think you see something that really isn't there (like an orc), or "false negatives;" that is, you think there is no pit trap there when there really is.