Deadly Dungeons 3: Blastdoor Room

Artillery battery at Youghal
Artillery battery at Youghal.

For a long while I’ve wanted to use Papers & Pencils as a means to share dungeon stuff, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out how I wanted to do it. The first Deadly Dungeons post was my attempt to convert the World of Warcraft dungeon Scholomance into a tabletop dungeon. Aside from the fact that I never finished the project due to the overwhelming amount of work I created for myself, I now view even the results I did produce to be undesirable. My second, much more recent attempt to make the Deadly Dungeons series work was just last month, when I posted the GM notes for The Ironbone Tower. Ultimately I don’t think that was a very good post either.

Unsure of how to post this kind of content in a useful way, I set the Deadly Dungeons series aside again until I could figure something better out. Then, while reviewing my archives to find things I could build upon, I stumbled upon to some unexpected inspiration while reviewing one of my least favorite posts ever. Instead of trying to post entire dungeons, like a moron, why wasn’t I simply posting modular dungeon rooms like a smart person would?

So that’s what I’m doing now. Deadly Dungeons will be joining Colorful Characters, Magical Marvels, Merciless Monsters, and Lively Locals as one of the regular Friday posts. I hope you enjoy!

Blastdoor Room Map by LSThe Blastdoor Room is a circular stone room, which the players enter via an archway. A multitude of doors are spaced around the rooms outside edge. Each door is of simple wooden construction, but is sturdy, mounted on excellent hinges, and banded with iron. The stone floor of the room slopes slightly towards the room’s center, where an 18″ diameter hole is placed. It is dark within, but if the players bring a light source to bear, they will discover that the interior of the hole is very smooth, and less than 2ft down it turns off to the side. They are unable to see further.

Upon closer inspection, the players may notice that between the doors, there are areas of the wall which seem much more dilapidated than the rest of the room. They are cracked and dented, with bits of gravel on the floor beneath them. These damaged areas of wall are only about 3ft square, while the walls around them appears to be in much better condition.

Behind every door in the room is a cannon, which is loaded and prepared by a sophisticated mechanism behind the walls. The doors each hold down a spring mechanism mounted on the door’s frame. A moment after a door is opened–even if it is only opened an inch–the cannon will fire. The cannonball will travel along the dotted lines indicated, and smash into the wall directly opposite the door. The walls are extremely sturdy and will not break, but observant players will notice that each of the damaged sections of wall mentioned above has a corresponding door on the opposite side of the room. After striking the wall, and perhaps bouncing on the floor a bit, the ball will gradually roll along the slope of the floor, and fall into the hole at the center of the room, where it will be returned to the loading mechanism behind the walls.

Characters standing in the path of the cannonball will take an amount of damage appropriate to the game being played. (OD&D: 2d6, Pathfinder: 6d6). If the door was not fully opened, then it may be destroyed by the cannon’s fire. If this is the case, characters within 5ft of the door are subject to damage from the wooden shrapnel. (OD&D Save V. Breath, 1d6 damage; Pathfinder Reflex save DC: 18, 2d6 damage). Note that the cannon will not fire continuously if the door is destroyed. The spring switch must be depressed between the cannon’s firings.

If the characters take the time to match sections of damaged wall to doors, then they will discover that every single area of damaged wall is directly opposite from a door. However, there is one door which is not opposite from a section of damaged wall. This section of wall is constructed of the same materials as the rest of the room, but lacks the special reinforcement that the other walls have. If the door opposite this section of wall is opened, then the cannonball will blast through the wall, revealing a secret hallway.

Depending on the dungeon, there may or may not be creatures who will replace broken doors and broken walls. Players who enter the secret hallway may return to find their way back has been bricked up!

Picture Thursday 8: “Cultural Misunderstandings 2” by ‘hibbary

Cultural Misunderstandings 2 by HibaryThe very talented ‘hibbary of DeviantArt graciously allowed me to share this short comic with you all. She has some fantastic artwork available for viewing, and I strongly encourage anyone who enjoys fantasy art to check out her gallery. Much of what she has posted there is actually much more technically impressive than this. Colors, shading, all of that jazz. But I thought this comic (one of several exploring the relationship between LotR’s Gimli and Legolas) was a particularly good fit for Picture Thursday, because it eloquently demonstrates a point which I myself have tried to express before. Albeit with a less elegant approach.

Namely, that every fantasy race is going to have a unique and profoundly different worldview from that of humans.

‘hibbary makes the same point earlier in Cultural Misunderstandings 1, but I preferred this piece. Maybe it’s because the joke is better executed.

Or…ya know. Maybe it’s something else.

LS is a Dwarf

Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 10

The Cover of the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide by Gary Gygax, Illustrated by David C. Sutherland III
No art in this selection, so here’s the cover art by David C. Sutherland III

This is the tenth installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “Economics” on page 90, and continues through “Peasants, Serfs, and Slaves” on page 94. My purpose is not to review the DMG, but to go through it as a modern gamer, learning about the roots of Dungeons and Dragons, and making note when I see something surprising or interesting, or something which could be adapted for a modern game.

You can read all posts in this series under the Gary Gygax’s DMG tag.

Economics: According to this section, the prices of items used in the game reflect an economy which has been inflated by the presence of gold-carting adventurers. Reading this was elucidating for me, as I was always curious why a ten foot stick of wood cost a whopping 1 gold piece. (I still think that’s a little extreme)! Being aware of this underlying rationale behind the pricing methodology raises interesting possibilities in my mind of a campaign where prices start out at the much more reasonable ‘handfull of coppers,’ and only gradually do prices begin to rise as the players find greater and greater treasures, inflating whatever local economy they’re operating in.

Even if I never act on that idea (it would probably be a great deal of work for relatively little reward), it’s nice to gain a fuller understanding of why things are the way they are. This is the kind of flavor I wish was more present in Pathfinder.

Duties, Excises, Fees, Tariffs, Taxes, Tithes, and Tolls: Taxes in the game are an idea which have always intrigued me, but I’ve never seriously considered including them. Despite recognizing their worth as a drain on player resources and an impetus to adventure, I’ve never personally found that either of those things is really needed in my games. So I’ve seen no reason to add them. And with the multitude of taxes Gygax describes in this section, I think my players might revolt if I implemented them all. Though I don’t think Gygax actually intends for all to be used at once.

None the less, this subsection makes a compelling case. There are a lot of interesting ways the government might extract money from the player, which might encourage players to be a little more hungry for treasure just so they can maintain a posh style of living. Something as simple as a toll for entering a city, or a magistrate appearing and demanding back taxes on the player’s home, could make for an interesting game obstacle.

Monster Populations and Placement: Like many recent sections, I wish something like this were included in the D&D 3.5 DMG. Having read something like this, I think I would have been better prepared for running a world. As it stands, it took me some time before I determined that random charts of monsters ought to be populated with monsters relevant to an area, rather than forcing planned encounters or using completely random charts. In the past I’ve often made the mistake of assuming a monster population will always be refilled, rather than letting players gradually alter the environment around them by clearing monsters.

I also find it an interesting point of view that the players would see clearing an area of dangers to be a bad thing, because their opportunities for treasure are now lessened. “The frontier moves, and bold adventurers must move with it,” he writes.

Placement of Monetary Treasure: More solid advice on GMing which I wish I had encountered earlier in my GMing career. I particularly like the way Gary explains that part of the challenge of finding treasure is recognizing it when you see it. Anybody can grab a pile of coins or jewels or finely crafted jewelry, and haul it to the surface seeking a reward. But what of something less obvious? Fine clothes, a well crafted chair, or the history of a forgotten royal lineage. Taken together, these parts of the treasure horde may be worth even more than the gold and jewels.

Placement of Magic Items: While it is, ultimately, relevant to the placement of magic items, this section is mostly just a tirade about the dangers of adding too many magic items to a game. There’s some repetition of what was written in the section on placement of treasure as well. Really this section just comes off as unnecessary, or at least its placement is strange. Perhaps a section could have been added a page or so back titled “Balancing Treasure” which covered the issues of over and under rewarding your players, allowing this section to offer advice more specific to magic items.

Territory Development by Player Characters, AND Peasants, Serfs, and Slaves: Many years ago, when I was a wee game master looking for a D&D 3.5 group, I was very interested in the concept of strongholds. I thought this idea was fascinating, but it wasn’t really covered all that much in the D&D 3.5 core rulebooks. Looking for more information, I purchased the D&D 3.0 Stronghold Builder’s Guide. Upon reading it, however, I found myself disappointed. I couldn’t put my finger on why, because the book had a ton of information on building strongholds. Materials costs, and room types which could be purchased, and a litany of special options players could invest in while planning their headquarters. But none the less, I found the product lacking.

I haven’t thought about Strongholds much in the last few years. I still think they’re a wicked awesome thing to spend money on, but since I largely play low level campaigns, players have never really had the money necessary to build one. Now though, reading this section of the DMG, I recognize what the Stronghold Builder’s Guide was missing: challenge. The entire guide is all about how many options players have, and all the marvelous things they can do. But since there’s no obstacles in the way of accomplishing those goals (save the gold piece value for materials and labor) the entire creation feels ultimately meaningless.

It’s alot like another game I played as a youth: “Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings.” It was a real time strategy game where the player was tasked with controlling villagers to expand and advance their medieval fiefdom, while using soldiers to defend it, or to assault the fiefdoms of others. The game provided me with many happy hours, but I always found it frustrating that I never had the time or the resources to construct a truly marvelous city, with double-deep walls, dozens of watch towers, etc. Occasionally, I would enter the game’s map editing mode and work on building my perfect city. Only to quickly grow bored of the task, and go back to playing the game. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the source of my boredom was that the task had no challenge, nor any meaningful reward. And thus all I was doing was creating a make-believe city with no purpose in mind.

These two subsections have given me an important insight into this area of the game.

Favorite Quotes from this Section


What society can exist without revenues? What better means of assuring revenues than taxation, and all of the names used in the title of this section are synonymous with taxes–but if it is called something different perhaps the populace won’t take too much umbrage at having to pay and pay and pay…” -Gygax, DMG, Page 90

“But hold! This is not a signal to begin throwing heaps of treasure at players as if you were some mad Midas hating what he created by his touch.” -Gygax, DMG, Page 92

D&D Christmas Carols: Dark Lord Wenceslaus

Good King Wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas, Artist Unknown

This requires some explanation.

Much as I’d love to devote all of my attention to creative endeavors, I, like most other college dropouts turned artist, have a day job. Not the worst one in the world, but one that I find to be largely menial and uninteresting. Part of this job involves spending a lot of time in a warehouse, alone. I don’t mind the solitude–and in fact I quite like it. It allows me time to think which I might not otherwise find on a busy day. Many of the posts here on Papers and Pencils were conceived while talking to myself as I herd boxes.

Earlier this month, as I often do, I was alternating between humming and singing. This particular day, I was humming my favorite Christmas song: Good King Wenceslaus. It’s a great song which a lot of people, surprisingly, have never heard. Unfortunately, I only knew the first verse of the song, and I wasn’t even sure I had all the words to that right. So at my first opportunity, I printed a copy of the lyrics off the Internet, and began to teach myself the song.

Since committing the entire song to memory, I’ve sung it a lot. A lot. I’ve been telling people that my girlfriend is visiting her parents for Christmas right now, but in truth she said she needed to get away from my constant recitation of that damned song. And as with anything, if you repeat it enough, it starts to sound weird. About a week ago, the way I sang the first line; “Good king Wenceslaus looked down,” placed an unusual amount of emphasis on the “Good.” Doing so made it sound as though this was the good King Wenceslaus. As opposed to the not good one.

The idea tickled my fancy. On the spot I began to compose “Bad King Wenceslaus.”

You may wish to turn back now.

I’m going to warn you: a girl I liked once told me I had a nice singing voice. And despite the fact that no one who wasn’t trying to get into my pants has ever agreed with her, I still have a completely unjustified confidence in my singing ability. Flee while you can.

Checking for Traps is Bullshit

Someone dressed as a roman legionaire carefully opening a potentially trapped chest.
Image taken from the Ultima Wiki

Earlier this evening, I was GMing a game of my D&D&LB campaign. The game consisted of the players trying to escape from a tower where they had been imprisoned. This was the third session of them working to escape this tower, and I’ve been happy with their performance. They’ve had a few slipups and bad judgement calls, have lost all of their hirelings and a PC, but have nevertheless held it together and survived with barely any time to rest or recover their health or spells. I’ve been hard on them, and they’ve succeeded despite that.

Halfway through this session, they entered a room with three chests in it. Eager to be on their way, but unable to pass up this tantalizing prize, they decided to loot the chests. One of the players stood guard while the magic user tested the lid of each chest with a sword. All were locked. The MU (our newest player), then asked if he could test for traps with the sword. I replied that he could poke around, but that many lock traps were activated by the tumblers within the lock, so the sword would be too big to test for those. With no other recourse, the rogue stepped up. She checked for traps, and I rolled to see if she found any, because I don’t like the players to know if they rolled high or low for this kind of thing. She rolled very low, and in turn, I told her that there were no traps she could detect. She then told me that she was putting on a pair of leather gloves, and would then like to pick the lock.

At this point it fell to me to inform her that a poison needle shot out of the locking mechanism, and injected her with a 4d6 Intelligence draining poison. Since the party was trapped in this tower, with dozens of bandits between them and a half-day’s march into town, it was time for her to make a save versus poison, or face nearly certain death.

But I couldn’t do that to her.

One of the most important philosophies I’ve taken from my reading in the OSR, is that players should be able to avoid death through intelligent play. That saving throws should only be called for if the player has made a mistake. But as far as I can see, this player didn’t make any mistakes. She did everything right, tested everything thoroughly, even put on an ineffectual pair of gloves for extra protection, and now I was supposed to kill her for it. Had I gone through with it, I think that player would have been fully justified in being angry. I think she would have been right to believe that her choices had not meaningfully affected whether her character lived or died, which is the grossest violation of player agency in my view.

It could be argued, of course, that before opening any chests, an intelligent player would have antitoxins on hand. An even more intelligent player would make sure someone else was always the one to open chests. The most intelligent player is the one who never leaves the starting town, and becomes rich through economic prowess. If the game is about adventure, it seems counter productive to create an environment where players can never feel safe opening the next door, or looting the next chest.

I was silent for a good 30 seconds while I pondered this, and my players stared at me with trepidation. Finally I said “Here’s the deal, guys. There is a needle trap on this lock. You rolled too low to find it. The poison on it would almost certainly kill you. But you guys did everything you could to be careful, so I’m not going to do that to you. Instead, for the rest of this session, if the rogue checks for traps, I’ll just tell you if there are traps or not. By next session I’ll figure out a more permanent trap-checking mechanic for us to use.”

And that’s where I’m at right now. I’ve decided I don’t like rolling for trap checks, but can’t figure out how better to approach the task. Any thoughts?

Also, this is relevant.

Pathfinder Class Analysis 1: Barbarian

Amiri, the paragon Barbarian from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, illustrated by Wayne Reynolds
Amiri by Wayne Reynolds, from the PFCRB

Core Concept: While they’re not a class I’ve personally ever wanted to play, I think barbarians have a legitimate niche within fantasy adventures. Fighters are soldiers with expertly honed weapons skills and knowledge of military tactics. The fighter class can’t represent the brute ferocity of the wild-man. If you are to imagine the battles between Rome and Gaul, it would be hard name meaningful similarities between the warriors on the two sides. What I’m a little less fond of is the rage mechanic which is part-in-parcel of every barbarian class. I don’t actively dislike rage mechanics, they’re flavorful and they work fine. I just don’t think it’s such a perfect fit for the barbarian concept that it deserves to be ubiquitous.

As an example, I once made a class called the Whirling Berserker which received  a bonus to attack rolls so long as she attacked a different target on each turn. As such, the character would be most effective if she moved through a battle, attacking everyone she passed, rather than engaging with a single opponent.

So while I think the concept deserves some more creative thinking than it normally gets, I none the less approve of the class’s inclusion in the Pathfinder RPG.

Fast Movement:Movement speed is important to grid based combat. And while I don’t like to be forced to use a grid, I certainly like to have it as an option. The potential problem of Fast Movement is that it does tie a group down to using a grid, because if a grid is not used, then the barbarian player’s class is functionally gimped. That being said, I have GMed for several barbarians, and none of them have complained yet during the battles where I choose to run things grid-less.

That’s really a minor issue however, as Pathfinder combat is intended to be run with a grid. And when using a grid, the rate of movement has some very interesting effects on combat. If anything, I’d like to see more movement speed bonuses and penalties in the game.

Rage: I’ve already mentioned that I don’t think rage mechanics deserve to be ubiquitous, but it’s here, so lets talk about how it’s implemented.

Honestly I’d rather see rage be more dramatically powerful, but come with more significant drawbacks. As it stands, Rage is certainly…’balanced.’ It’s a boon to the class which allows them to be competitive in combat. But that’s a metric which I believe to be overrated. Not entirely without value, mind you, but certainly overrated. I won’t go into that now, but I recommend Brendan of Untimately’s thoughts on the matter.

Instead of a small bonuses and penalties, I want to see Barbarians hurl stones that weigh as much as they do–but I also want them to have a possibility to attack their fellows, or flee from a flashy magical effect. I haven’t thought out how this might be implemented, but I’d enjoy it a lot more than a +4 bonus to Strength and Constitution. Snore.

Rage Powers: Despite myself, I love rage powers. They overcomplicate the class, confuse new players, and encourage veteran players to concentrate on their character’s ‘build,’ rather than improvement through play. But all of that aside, I think Rage Powers are awesome. They’re elegantly flavorful, and lend the rage ability the type of drama I was lamenting the lack of above.

Consider that when enraged, a character could gain the ability to see in the dark, or run twice as fast, or deflect swords with the sheer bulginess of their muscles. It is fun, and awesome. And–better yet–most every one of the rage powers presented in the core rulebook avoid my problem with feats. They’re mostly improvements to stuff the character could already attempt, or legitimately new abilities, rather than agency-damaging game options.

Though I do love them, I think Rage Powers might benefit from being made much more powerful, and acquired much more slowly.

Improved / Uncanny Dodge: There’s not a lot to say about this pair of abilities. They might be seen as complications, but at least they’re not minor, fiddly ones. The inability to be caught flat footed, or the inability to be flanked, change a lot about how combat will work. The pair works well with barbarian flavor–particularly if you consider my alternative to ‘rage’ noted above–so no complaints on that front either.

Trap Sense: This, on the other hand, is a minor fiddly complication; and not one which fits particularly well with Barbarian flavor. I’ve always hated Trap Sense, even for rogues. Perhaps it might carry more weight if traps were deadlier in Pathfinder. (Of course, traps are plenty deadly in my games. But not in Pathfinder raw.)

Damage Reduction: I think damage reduction is a really elegant mechanic, and one of the best innovations of D&D 3rd edition.* I think it’s also a good fit for the Barbarian, since they’re so ferocious and battle scarred that minor blows have completely ceased to phase them.

Greater / Mighty Rage: While I’m okay with rage as a barbarian ability, I do not like these kinds of rage ‘upgrades.’ I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but it makes the character’s progression seem stilted. I would much rather see rage improve organically. So instead of +4 strength at level 1, +6 at level 11, and +8 at level 20; rage could simply give characters a 25% increase in strength. As the character’s strength improved, so would the strength bonus they received when they raged.

As an alternative, all improvements to rage could come in the form of something similar to rage powers.

Indomitable Will: I can’t help but feel this ought to just be a rage power. Maybe it was deemed to be out of balance with other rage power options, but as I mentioned, I think rage powers ought to have a more dramatic effect anyway.

Tireless Rage: I’ve decided I’m too tired and apathetic to write what I think about Tireless Rage. Instead, just go up and read what I think about Indomitable Will, because my thoughts on that ability are literally identical to my thoughts on Tireless Rage. I seriously considered copy-pasting it.

*Please forgive me, and correct me, if I’m missing a piece of gaming history here.

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