don’t want to talk about monsters this week. Instead, I want to muse a bit on what might be a lost art of the Dungeon Master’s trade—or might just be something we all do and don’t talk about any more, at least not in the same terms. I’m talking about tricks.
What Is Exploration?
I came to this realization a while ago when I was thinking about the “three pillars” of the game that Mike has mentioned in Legends & Lore more than once: combat, interaction, and exploration. What is exploration, really? Well, it’s more than just the rules that govern how you get from one place to another. It’s more than the rules for listening at doors and breaking them down.
It includes those mundane mechanics of moving around in the D&D world, but more importantly, it describes the wonder-filled activity of uncovering the secrets of an ancient or mysterious environment, whether it’s an ancient dungeon, dusty ruins, or a savage wilderness. Exploration includes the following kinds of activities:
- Figuring out how to get from here to there (across a room, across a chasm, out of a trapped room, and so on)
- Figuring out how to get at a treasure or doorway (on the ceiling, across a chasm, and so on)
- Finding and opening secret doors or teleportation devices
- Investigating strange dungeon or natural features (fountains, pools, statues, and so on)
- Deciphering clues
- Solving mysteries or riddles
- Bypassing or disabling traps
- Avoiding getting lost
- Finding something (a treasure, a dungeon entrance, the way to the vault, and so on)
You might sometimes make ability checks during exploration: Can you cross the wildly swinging rope bridge without falling? Can you scale the sheer cliff wall? More often, though, you’ll rely on your own wits as you interact with the DM. It’s up to you to figure out the right sequence of levers to pull, to locate the hidden catch that will open the secret door, or to figure out which way to push the statue so it slides over to reveal a trapdoor beneath it. Experiment, ask questions, keep notes, and pay attention, and eventually the dungeon’s mysteries will be revealed to you!
Tricks of the Trade
I spent a lot of time looking at rules and adventures from the early days of D&D and thinking about how the game handled exploration back then. Surprisingly, I found that the rules never said much about it—it was an activity that was always assumed but rarely rose to the forefront of discussion.
A lot of what appears in the bullet list above actually came from looking at the early descriptions of “tricks” (as opposed to traps). Appendix H of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide had this to say:
“Most experienced Dungeon Masters will probably already have a proud repertoire of clever and innovative (not to mention unique and astounding) artifices, deceptions, conundrums, and sundry tricks which will put to shame the humble offering that follows.”
What’s interesting to me there is the assumption that tricks are an essential element of every DM’s arsenal, and indeed, looking at the attributes in the appendix and the examples that follow, these are the kinds of things that make exploration an interesting and entertaining part of the D&D game experience:
“This [fountain] is a beautiful work of onyx and jet black stone. A grinning gargoyle and a lovely nymph are depicted, the former with an open mouth, the latter with a pitcher. As soon as the party enters, the gargoyle will ask a riddle, and if it is not answered it will spray poison upon the group (save or dead). If answered, the nymph will then recite a poem which is a clue to a special treasure.”
Clues, riddles, and save-or-die traps are all essential elements of the early game, all wrapped up in one neat package.
It’s also interesting that so many tricks (especially looking back at the original D&D game) are aimed at confounding the party’s map of the dungeon or getting them lost. Teleporters, stairways at the end of sloping passages, rotating rooms, elevator rooms, distance distortion, and similar effects just confuse the players about their position in the dungeon. In practical terms, their primary effect is causing arguments between the players and the DM over the accuracy of the players’ map.
The more interesting (in my opinion) tricks fall into four categories:
Obstacles: I can see where I want to go (a tunnel across a chasm, a treasure chest on the ceiling) but I need to figure out how to get there.
Dungeon Dressing: There’s a feature here (a dozen pools, a set of levers, a moving tapestry) and I want to understand it or possibly claim a treasure from it.
Mysteries: The environment presents me with information, and I want to piece it together and figure out what it means. What caused the destruction of this ruined city? What experiments are the goblins doing in these ancient tombs? What brought a curse upon the paladins of this ancient abbey?
Hidden Things: There’s nothing obvious to see, but if I look around carefully (and find the secret door or activate the teleportation circle or find the hidden compartment in the altar) I’m rewarded with a treasure or access to another part of the dungeon.
There are examples of other kinds of exploration in the history of the game, but they’re not necessarily good for the game:
- Traps whose sole purpose is to punish characters for not finding them (often with sudden meaningless death).
- Searching the mountaintop for the dungeon entrance, which is too often reduced to waiting for the DM to roll the right number that means we found it.
So I think we’re right to be talking about three pillars of the game, but it might be more helpful to think about it in terms of three types of encounters: combat encounters (the kind where you beat up monsters), interaction encounters (the kind where you talk to people), and exploration encounters (the kind where you deal with tricks and sometimes traps). The overall exploration rules—how you move from place to place—that’s the glue that holds encounters together. It’s the room the pillars are in. Exploration encounters provide a much richer space for DM creativity and allow the players to find challenge—and fun.
The weird thing is that the game stops talking about “tricks” (using that word) after 1st Edition AD&D. We keep stocking our dungeon with this kind of obstacle and challenge, but by taking away the language we used to use to talk about them, we’ve made them an implicit part of the game and hidden them from newer DMs.
What Do You Think?
So, how about those tricks? Are they treats? Or horrible abominations that must be cast back out into the night?
Previous Poll Results
Would you agree with a blanket statement that demons—and demon princes in particular—leave a lasting mark on the world when they enter it?
|No, demons come to the world all the time and it’s not such a big deal.
|Partially. It’s OK for demon princes to leave a mark, but not run-of-the-mill demons.
|Partially. It takes a powerful demon (say, a glabrezu or better) to really leave its stamp on the world.
|Yes. Summoning demons should be a really nasty thing.
Do you agree that summoning a demon should be an intrinsically evil act, requiring bloody sacrifice?
|No, there’s nothing wrong with putting an evil creature to good ends.
|No, I think it should be more morally ambiguous.
|Maybe if you make a bloody sacrifice, you get a better demon somehow.
|Yes, only the truly vile summon demons.
What do you think of our Yeenoghu story to explain the origin of gnolls?
|I hate it. Yondalla, really?
|I think it’s fine as a lesson about how bad it is to summon a demon, but not good as an origin story for gnolls.
|It’s OK if it’s one story among many.
|I love it.
How about Orcus and the Bloodstone Lands?
|Since Orcus didn’t actually enter the world, you don’t need to find his lasting mark on Vaasa.
|I think you’re really stretching to give Orcus a lasting influence there.
|I like the idea that Orcus’s influence is present in the renewed Castle Perilous.
|I like the idea that Orcus’s influence comes through the ironfell of the Warlock Knights.
|I like Orcus in both Castle Perilous and the ironfell.
|I think Vaasa in the post-Sundering Realms should bear a much greater mark of Orcus’s lingering influence.
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.