Monday, 12 September 2016

My Precious Dungeon Walls!

Dungeons preventing teleport, passwall, and other magical ways around or through walls have been a design cliche since Undermountain. It's been so endemic that Bryce Lynch gives special kudos to designers who don't fall for it. But what, exactly, are they afraid of?

The hypothetical cheater who uses spells to get to the last room of the dungeon must first find the last room of the dungeon. In a sprawling underground maze this is nearly impossible. If you're just using it to get through a locked door, that's the equivalent of a knock spell, and nobody legislates against those.

But let's say you've found the last room of the dungeon, either because it's bloody obvious (top of a tower, sealed chamber in the middle of the maze with the Gallstone of Four Parts) or because you have scried it out with clairvoyance, wizard eye or the like -- another tool type often suppressed by cautious adventure designers.

Let's even forget about the mechanical possibility, in a teleport spell, of having a fatal or disfiguring targeting error happen.

What do you think is going to happen when that teleporting or flying or dimension-dooring wizard gets there? A wizard, alone? Passwall and mass teleport are more of a problem (I don't allow them in my game). But without intelligence on the dungeon, again, they're just shots in the dark.

A better explanation of the obsession with fettering knowledge and movement spells lies in a clash of game design principles.

For incremental game design, everything is a matter of quantity, hit points and resources are worn down bit by bit, and a fair fight can be gauged.

Catastrophic design, though, allows for sudden winning moves, daylight frying the all-powerful vampire, a poisoned shirt killing Hercules. Balance here is non-linear, hard to judge. Discernment, avoidance, and preparation are more important than the toe-to-toe slog. Death is sudden, not gradual. Characters with a spell can kill a maze just like characters with a mirror can kill a basilisk.

The struggle between these two views, one "fair" and one "real," determines any given gaming experience. Another front in the war: turning undead vs. anti-turning medallions.

But even if you commit to the incremental way, "can't" is still the uglest word. Recently I made a try at fixing"you can't move." The obvious fix for "you can't teleport" is for the wizard's lair or whatever to be guarded by a chaotic teleportation zone that dumps you in a random location in the dungeon or even another plane of existence.

You can turn the undead? Fine, but the undead can also turn you. "Can," not "can't" if you please.


  1. While still a coherent set of rules that govern the how and often the why, improvisation is the heart of many of these games. Plavyers coming up with clever things that are unanticipated, good use of normal whatnot in ingenious ways, and good PLAY are all positive (at least as far as I can tell) things. "Can't" is the opposite of improvisation - it is the predetermined "No" that stifles creativity and forces one onto rails that reduce player agency (and more importantly creativity) to side notes rather than center stage. Disallowing an entire spell (such as mass teleport) is fine as it is known, but reducing a super cool ability like regular teleport is just boring. So kudos to "Can not Can't"!

  2. I really appreciate this kind of design!

    A slow war of attrition can be enjoyable (it is the big balancing mechanism for dungeon expeditions, after all - the deeper you get and the more resources you expend, the more vulnerable you become), but there is just something to be said for a quick strike to the heart of a challenge. The fascination of high-level AD&D comes precisely from characters who CAN bypass fantastic odds and carefully planned obstacles, and surprise a well-prepared GM with a careful lateral move. These games have the potential to turn into high-powered, Moorcock-style extravaganzas with enormous freedom of choice and - consequently - some really high-stake, high-reward games.

    Even on lower levels, it is fun to encourage this kind of "hacking", by allowing PCs to inflitrate a multi-level complex from different angles. Did Conan start at the bottom of the Tower of the Elephant? No, he scaled the walls, killed one giant spider, and there he was right in the centre of it!

    In my experience, if the GM is not a stickler for details in outlining a scenario, it can make for some really memorable sessions.

  3. This seems so unlike you somehow. If I had had to guess, I would have guessed that you would applaud the judicious use of Passwall et al.

    1. Yeah, maybe I'm being unfair to it. I do allow spells that essentially work the same, turning rock to sand and so on.

  4. From Apocalypse World referee advice, pages 111 & 112:

    Look through crosshairs. Whenever your attention lands on someone or something that you own — an NPC or a feature of the landscape, material or social — consider first killing it, overthrowing it, burning it down, blowing it up, or burying it in the poisoned ground. An individual NPC, a faction of NPCs, some arrangement between NPCs, even an entire rival holding and its NPC warlord: crosshairs. It’s one of the game’s slogans: “there are no status quos in Apocalypse World.” You can let the players think that some arrangement or institution is reliable, if they’re that foolish, but for you yourself: everything you own is, first, always and overwhelmingly, a target.

    1. And by that token, the GM should expect similar surprises coming from the players!

  5. Back when I started, we got through dungeon walls and doors with the stone to flesh spell...

    1. Smart thinking. That's how one of the groups I was running through The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan managed to escape - they had a stone to flesh scroll, and managed to turn the pyramid's exterior wall into meat, then hacked through the bloody thing.