Thursday 25 April 2019

“Gotcha!” D&D and Telegraphing Encounters

I’ve often talked about telegraphing encounters, and in one blog post I’ve written about how Gary Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors is an essentially “fair” dungeon, although it is in no way easy to beat. When I was in high school, I played a party consisting of the special characters in the back of the Rouges Gallery, and I killed them all trying to solve the Tomb myself.

My own foray into the “deadly death trap dungeon” is Tomb of the Squonk, which was published by Mystic Bull Games as part of Pulp Weird Encounters #1. I wrote about it in the DCC Trove of Treasures here, and it is available for purchase here. I wrote about running it at Gary Con here.  

I am going to direct you to a couple of reviews. The Thilo G review can be found here originally, and I would encourage you to visit Endzeitgeist regularly as the reviews tend to be informative. He is, perhaps, a bit too positive regarding most of my output, but this is an exception. Tomb of the Squonk was not to his liking at all. In fact, the reviewer refers to it as a “dickish design-paradigm”…and it really is, because it is inspired by (and an homage to) Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series.  

(If you are unfamiliar with the World of Tiers, you can listen to podcasts pertaining to The Maker of Universes and The Gates of Creation at the Appendix N Bookclub, or The Maker of Universes at Sanctum Secorum.)

One of the Enzeitgeist criticisms is that some traps “kinda lack means to properly telegraph them”. Similarly, Noah S. writes that “the foolhardy adventurers would probably suffer a TPK either at the hands of the Squonk himself or in their efforts to assist him” and “it seems very likely to me that players not conversant in the old ways would suffer many many casualties”.

It is noted in the text that “This encounter is designed for 4-6 3rd-level characters. Because of the trap-heavy nature of the adventure, a party without at least one thief is seriously handicapped, and may not survive.”

Gotcha D&D

“Gotcha D&D” is a term for adventure design that sets you up to believe that X is true, while the opposite of X is actually true. The idea is that player expectations are subverted, which is fine, but in a way where rational decisions are punished, which is less fine. Good adventure design is not a series of “fuck you”s, where, no matter what the players do, they are screwed.

This is not to say that no level of “gotcha” is acceptable. For instance, a dwarf has the ability to smell gold and gems in DCC, and it is certainly within reason to make a gold-eating creature smell like gold to the poor dwarf. There is nothing wrong with the occasional creature, like a rust monster, that inverts the normal paradigm of the heavily armed (and armored) fighter having all of the advantage over her less-armored companions in a fight. In fact, the early rust monster had no effective attacks if you wore leather armor and beat it to death with a wooden club.

The goal should never to be taking away the PC’s hard-earned stuff (or the PCs themselves) without the players having any reasonable means to understand the risks involved. Ultimately, the best designs entice the players to take risks, continuing onward despite knowing that it is dangerous to do so. This is similar to how a judge can create a magic item that is good enough to use, but which has drawbacks forcing the players to consider how much they want to use it.

In several of the World of Tiers books, protagonists face a series of death traps and overcome them. The death traps are real, and brutal. Many of them would certainly kill the person who failed to discover and/or disarm or avoid them. Our protagonists, of course, do manage to survive them, just as Conan overcomes giant spiders and human adversaries, or Tarzan manages to kill lions with a knife.

The goal is to allow the players to experience a slice of Farmer-style Appendix N action, giving them a chance to succeed, all the while making them understand how slender the odds of success are. The Patricians are cruel, “childish, petty, and spiteful”. The players’ introduction to the Patricians must convey this.

The question becomes: How? And how do you make if fair?

There are going to be a lot of spoilers in what follows. If you intend on playing this adventure, you should skip the discussion below.

Enter the Tomb

The goal is to make the adventure fair. Despite being a death trap, a clever party should be able to survive with minimal (or no) loss. The players should also come out of it feeling that they were both lucky and clever to do so. The design has to feel “dickish” while telegraphing enough information to allow the players to succeed.

As the adventure describes, “About three months ago, Arvind Shar was captured by his sister, Yona, who transferred his body into that of the squonk, a hideous creature from a far distant plane. He has survived ever since on frogs, raw fish, and the bodies of those who refuse to speak with him or help him. Travellers who encounter Arvind are terrified, and in his rage he often kills them. If the judge desires, the characters may hear rumors that a hideous creature of the swamps has been accosting wayfarers in this region. Meanwhile, Yona watches to gain full satisfaction from Arvind Shar’s humiliation.”

The adventure starts when the PCs meet the titular Squonk in a swamp. He is “a sodden lump of darkness with an elephantine trunk, bulging eyes, clawed hands, horns, and a thick tail ending in tentacle-like grasping appendages. The trunk ends in what appears to be a stinger of some sort. Spikes and boney nodules stud its hide.

The Squonk asks for help. His story is that “he was seduced and captured by an evil witch (who looked like a comely young lass, of course) who called herself Yona. She trapped him in this horrific form, but torments him with the knowledge that his true body lies in a tomb just within the low hills. If the party will only help him, Arvind is certain that there is a fortune in jewels lying not far from his uninhabited shell. He is lying, of course.”

Arvind Shar flinches when he sees birds, calling them “the Eyes of Yona”. At one point, a 3-lbs shard of meteoric iron targets one of the PCs. It is unlikely to hit, but is both damaging if it does, and demonstrates that there is, indeed, active and deadly opposition to the PCs aiding the Squonk.

Reaching the Tomb complex, the PCs are greeted with this:

Past the doors, you can see a 10-foot wide corridor stretching out before you some 30 feet before entering a wider space. The walls give off a soft radiance, making it easy to see. Lying near the opening is a human corpse, obviously several weeks dead and crawling with beetles and flies. The man’s head lies some 10 feet further down the corridor – from this distance, it appears to have been neatly shorn off.

The trap here is arbitrary and cruel – a laser beam which will most likely kill any that walks blithely into the hallway. However, the dead body should (and, IME, always does) telegraph the trap nicely. Notes are given to describe what a thief sees who finds the trap, as well as how it might be effectively bypassed. Going under it is the easiest way. No one has ever failed to discover this trap when I have run this adventure. No one has ever been killed by it. Its purpose is to warn the players of the existence of serious traps, as well as to imply their frequently technological/sci fi nature.

The second room must be entered to continue.

The corridor enters into a square marble room, 30 feet to a side, with an archway exiting in the middle of both the far wall and the wall to your right. Marble benches line the west wall. The room is otherwise bare. As with the corridor, the walls glow softly.

This area is trapped with a heat field, which causes 4d6 damage to anything that enters. Anyone foolish
enough to remain in the room for a whole round takes an additional 8d6 damage. The heat field is triggered by touching the floor – even a small stick is enough to trigger the field – or the presence of warm bodies within the room.

Once the field is triggered, it takes a few seconds to reset, allowing a character to throw in an object to trigger it, and then dash across the room. Doing so requires a Reflex save to succeed – DC 10 for creatures with a 30’ movement rate, and DC 15 for those with a 20’ move. If a character has taken precautions, such as soaking himself with water, before the dash, he gains an additional DC 10 Fort save to take half damage.

While this field can be detected by a thief (DC 20), there is no way to disarm the trap from here.”

A 3rd level Thief in DCC has a +7 bonus to Find Traps, meaning that an average thief has a 40% chance of detecting the trap if it is searched for. 4d6 is a lot of damage, but it should be remembered that even reaching 0 hp doesn’t automatically kill you in DCC. And, after the first trap, most players approach this room cautiously. Tossing the head from the first encounter into this room is, IME, the most common means that the trap is discovered. Characters with infravision can, of course, see the heat, but other characters can see the effects, and the one-round-on/one –round-off nature of the trap is pretty easy to learn with a little observation.

I have yet to see a character die in this room.

The third area does not need to be entered. Characters are unlikely to realize that at this point, however. A trap can seal this area, possibly splitting the party. Possibly trapping the party. “A thief can discover the bronze plate by finding traps (DC 10) (the edge of the plate is visible at the top of the arched corridor) and can similarly locate the pressure plate. There is no exposed mechanism to disarm, although the trap is easily avoided once it and its trigger are located.”

Assuming that the characters take even rudimentary precautions, a 3rd level Thief has a 85% chance of discovering the trap, and using a 10’ pole will trigger it, closing off the room before the PCs can enter. The best outcome is that the party detects the trap, enters the room, and discovers that it is a decoy. This telegraphs that decoys like this exist. If they then trigger the trap from a safe distance, they can also realize how potentially dangerous the trap was to them.

Now, I have had PCs get trapped in this room. And, as the text notes, “Without magic, there is no way to raise the plate from here.” Magically, a wizard or elf may try a reversed enlarge or ward portal, or might use invoke patron, knock, levitate, or shatter. A 3rd level cleric may ask for divine aid…but second sight used earlier would have been less costly. In one convention game, a PC had the magical Rah-Neld’s Raygun to escape a similar – and nastier – version of the same trap in the next area: “When the plate falls, it opens a sluice leading from a water reservoir into the end of the corridor. Water will rush into the area, rising 1 foot every 10 minutes.”

Most players note the bronze door waiting overhead before triggering it. Corridors are arched to a 12’ height, and the water rises 1 foot per 10 minutes, meaning that the PCs have 2 hours to save themselves…or, alternatively, their trapped companions. Again, while a surprising number of PCs have triggered this trap, I cannot recall a single PC who ever died as a result.

After a brief combat, the PCs reach a room which is really dangerous:

The corridor beyond the massive bronze doors is 20-foot wide ending in another set of massive bronze doors 70 feet away. There are hexagonal niches built into the walls, three to the left and three to the right, large enough for a man to easily stand within. Midway down the corridor, the floor is marked with a large crimson hexagon 20 feet across – above it, the ceiling disappears into a 20-foot-square shaft of unknown height.

The hexagonal niches to east and west are all one-way gates into other worlds. Anything tossed into them is lost, unless the character passes through the gate to recover it – and then, he must find some other way home! If Arvind is with the characters, he will caution them about the gates, but he is evasive about the source of his knowledge.”

Characters exploring these niches have wound up in other adventures – The Weird Worm-Ways of Saturn, The Giggling Deep, Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess, and others. They also allow the judge to introduce PCs to the worlds of Mutant Crawl Classics, The Umerican Survival Guide, Star Crawl, DCC Lankhmar, or whatever else the judge desires. A judge who wants to include more treasure can do so here, and can include a gate wherever it is located that allows the PCs to return.

But this room contains a real trap:

“The hexagon on the floor is different: it triggers a vortex that can pull a man-sized creature (or two halflings, etc.) 30’ up the shaft to another gate. This one is twoway and leads into the atmosphere of a super-heated gas giant. Any character passing through the gate drops back down 1d4 rounds later – charred and asphyxiated.

The vortex draws a creature up at the rate of 5’ per round and can be defeated simply by adding another creature to the glyph – if there are more creatures than it can draw, the vortex collapses. Creatures that are 10’ or higher when this is discovered suffer falling damage as usual.”

Rooms are 15’ high in the complex, which gives three rounds where the victim is clearly visible to rescue them. Thereafter, to see the victim, characters must enter the hex…automatically defeating the trap. What could have happened should be clear to the players, at least as a general outcome – the PC was heading up to a gate. That it did not happen should also be, by far, the most common outcome.

What happens next is either (1) the Squonk escapes with a potential new body, and the PCs follow it through a gate to recover their own, or (2) the PCs defeat the Squonk and go on to the last room. If the PCs just enter the room, it will kill them. Hopefully, though, by this time they have learned that just entering rooms in this place isn’t a good idea. There is a way to disarm the trap (DC 15, or 35-60% likely for a Thief who does not spend Luck). Using a pole, or throwing something into the room, is almost certain to discover the trap as well.

In the end, the PCs can gain just over 3,000 gp worth of gems, but doing so causes the archway leading from the room to “permanently becomes a gate leading to any location the judge desires – this is Yona’s last vengeance, so the judge should choose somewhere interesting.” This also deactivates the remaining gates, which some players might think of as a greater treasure than the gems. I have had players decide that the Tomb, with traps and gates intact, would make a great lair for themselves!


I have run this a number of times, and some of the players who have encountered it have been relatively new gamers (in every sense of the word; some were kids). In each case, the adventure worked as I had intended it to. Rather than being a series of “fuck you”s to the players, it is a series of terrible things that the players can resolve with wit and daring, allowing them to give a rousing series of triumphant “fuck you”s to the judge after surviving yet another trap which was clearly not meant to be survived (from their standpoint).

And that is, for a player, perhaps one of the best feelings you can have. You were “meant” to fail, but you succeeded anyway. Don’t believe me? Read some accounts of how player ingenuity conquered various tournament scenarios, from the very first Gen Con tournament to the very last. Consider all the weird (and brilliant!) plans players come up with to defeat obvious meat grinders in various funnel adventures.

At least twice I’ve come up with solutions to in-game problems that left gaming legend Brendan LaSalle having to wing the repercussions of my solutions…and I have to say, that is some of the best gaming I have ever experienced from the players’ side of the screen. I don’t know if our solution to the Damn Tasty! playtest last Gary Con was expected or not, but when the players think they are being clever (as we did!) it is the wise GM who avoids disabusing them of that notion.

But maybe what I was trying to do wasn’t clear from the writing. I therefore would like to open this up. Have you run or played in Tomb of the Squonk? If so, how did it go for your group? Feel free to tell me if I am really off-base here!