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.