In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of Book of Challenges discuss puzzles, riddles, and why there's no such thing as a "too dangerous" trap.
Wizards of the Coast: How many of the traps, encounters, puzzles, and dungeon chambers in Book of Challenges come directly from your own campaigning experiences?
Skip Williams: Not many. Several of the monsters and tricks I used are old favorites of mine, but they're old favorites because of many hair-raising (or hilarious) encounters.
Mike Selinker: Quite a few. Some of the ideas are even a decade old, though they've been vastly transfigured by the new edition. When I sat down to plot out my portion of the book, I dredged up the meanest things I could think of so that I could kill a new generation of player characters.
Gwendolyn Kestrel: Many in inspiration, few in direct translation. When running a game, I don't often reach into the dark viscous viciousness embodied in this book. That's for special occasions. As a player, my mind often speculates as to how the current encounter could have been made so much nastier with an "I hope the DM doesn't also do this" train of thought, but I keep tactfully silent.
Daniel Kaufman: Most of my contributions came from my own campaigns. My regular play group is DM'd by a fine fellow named Mark Waldron, who has an insidious love of creating traps and puzzles for our adventures. Mark ties the traps and puzzles into the campaign directly, but several of his encounters were very adaptable to the book's format. Mark was the original brain behind the gargoyle statue encounter, the mad wizard, and the jann puzzle, to name three. My friend Mike Lee suggested a couple things, and another friend, Matt, suggested basing a puzzle on an old standby board game from the 70s. Hey -- I just realized that I have a lot of friends whose names start with M.
Wizards: How did four of you split up the creative preparation of this book? Is one of you, for instance, better at creating traps than the others?
Skip: As I recall, we briefly formed a brain trust, with Mike taking the lead. After defining what we thought a good entry would be (and wouldn't players like to know what that is?), we pretty much made sure everyone got a little piece of everything.
Mike: Yeah, I got the plum assignment of lead designer, likely because I'm considered "puzzle boy" around the office. (There's some merit to that, as I've had puzzles published in the New York Times, Games, and Dragon for about two decades.) But I didn't want the book's puzzles to be all in my style, so I encouraged everyone to make some. Gwen's riddle encounter, for example, is a quite a bit different than my coded spellbook encounter. Besides, if I did all the puzzles, then I wouldn't get to do any of the traps and ambushes, and I wasn't about to let that opportunity slip by.
Daniel: Mike certainly does have that reputation for being the "puzzle guy," but we were encouraged to create encounters for all subjects. We had that brainstorming session as far as general content, but we weren't guided in a specific direction. We had responsibilities -- keeping the Challenge Ratings different and the monsters varied, that kind of stuff. I did run my puzzles past Mike and took liberal tips from Gwen and Skip as far as content, but that's just me using resources. Smartest thing I did, in fact!
I was lucky in that my work was done several months in advance of the others'. Since it was my first major book, they wanted to make sure I had all my fiendish ducks in a row, I think. I pretty much got a free rein as far as CRs, monsters, and settings. I think Skip and Gwen were the last to work on it and had the unenviable task of filling in the blanks. "Hey, we need another CR 8 encounter. Hey, we need a puzzle with spikes in it." That kind of thing.
Gwendolyn: Yes, I started on my contribution to the book after the other three designers had finished. I concerned myself with filling in any gaps in the Challenge Ratings, monster types, or themes. Thus, I enjoyed doing mostly very low and rather high CR encounters with a smattering in the middle.
Wizards: Is it difficult to prepare "ready-to-wear" traps, puzzles, and dungeon rooms as opposed to preparing them for a specific campaign setting?
Skip: If you mean, is it harder than what you might do for your own campaign? Yes, it is. You have to come up with something that works even without an entire campaign around it to support it. You also have to design without any foreknowledge of what the players will bring to the table, either in terms of sheer game power or playing experience. Nor can you rely on the DM's expertise.
Mike: Skip's not wrong about that, but for me it's kind of liberating to make disconnected encounters rather than weaving them into a campaign or superadventure. There's a bit of chef's talent involved in reducing a really great idea down to its essence, rather than garnishing it with all the trimmings a larger work requires. So when you encounter something in this book, there's no recourse in the next encounter. You're going to find that it hits you like a brick, and heaven forfend you encounter two of them in a row.
Gwendolyn: I quite agree with Mike that's it's liberating. Often, when you're thinking up ideas for an adventure, you wind up discarding some good ones because they don't fit the theme well. Here, I got to use all my best ideas!
Daniel: We had played around with the idea of creating an optional "over-setting," like the stereotypical mad wizard lair or ancient dwarven fortress, but set it aside during the process. I think in most ways it's easier to create stand-alone encounters. Who cares why the duergar want to drown you? That's a nice kind of freedom. Some of today's role-playing adventures get too tied up in explaining everything or having intricate plots, and it takes way from the fact that it's an adventure game. You don't want a bad plot, or a plot that doesn't make sense within itself, but sometimes, do I really care why those goblins are capturing unicorns and sawing their horns off? It's not a John Irving novel, it's a game of killin' monsters and taking their stuff. Some groups play more story adventures -- my main group even plays a fairly story-heavy campaign -- but that restricts creating a book like this.
Wizards: Did you ever find yourself deliberately toning down the lethalness of a trap because you felt bad for the players whose characters would inevitably encounter it?
Skip: As a certain cartoon character once said: "He don't know me very well, do he?" All the designers did for this book was write encounters where the bad guys play it smart. In my case, that meant looking at every creature and item in an encounter and squeezing out every ounce of nastiness. After I was done with that, I topped things off with a little deception. That's not to say the book is full of deathtraps -- it's not. Everything in the book can be beaten, if you do the right thing, and the clues to what the right thing is are there for players perceptive enough to find them. So, if you get hammered by the stuff in this book, it's your own fault!
Mike: The introduction I wrote for the book says it all: This book is for those days when your DM doesn't have any sympathy for the player characters. I don't know why your DM feels that way, but I'm fully capable of empowering her with all the tools she needs to take it out on you. Maybe your DM got her car keyed on the way to the session. Maybe she thinks you did it. Regardless, you're not going to get anywhere by trying to talk her down from the ledge. Just put on your thinking cap, and be prepared for anything.
Daniel: Mike Selinker helped me tone down a lot of my early segments. He kept giving me these looks as I brought him encounters -- the kind of look you give your DM when he keeps saying "Make a Fort save" over and over while you're walking down a dungeon hall.
You have to walk a balance between fun and lethal. The old days of TSR featured these books of horrendous traps and bastardly encounters that just looked like some guy trying to prove how clever he was -- stuff set up for the DM to basically play solitaire with the characters' lives while the players watched. An encounter should be clever and should have the potential to be lethal, but in the end, it's the players' game, not the DM's. The players should get the most enjoyment out of the encounter. While sometimes that means they should die in enjoyable ways -- ways they can bother their friends and loved ones about for weeks and weeks -- there should always be a realistic way they can overcome the encounter: "realistic" meaning that they don't have to guess what color frosting your birthday cake had when you were six, or don't have to count how many grains of sand are in a square foot of grass based on some Stephen Hawkingian-designed super-string theory. For the most part I think we accomplished that.
Gwendolyn: Bah! Let lily-livered players meander around in Fuzzy Bunny Land. The encounters in the Book of Challenges are for DMs and players with chutzpah.
Wizards: I thought the encounter "Primary Thinking" was unusually nasty and wildly clever. Do you have favorites from the book, whether your own or one written by another designer?
Skip: Several, but I hesitate to mention any by name for fear of giving away secrets. Dan did a nasty area combat that I had a chance to playtest and comment on. There are a couple of truly diabolical mazes and labyrinths as well.
Gwendolyn: It's hard to pick a favorite. Too many nasty bits from which to choose! Best of all, there's lots of help for a DM to create her own vicious challenges.
Mike: Like Skip said, I'm not giving away any secrets to the players that are reading this behind their DM's back. (Here's one hint: When your wizard hits fifth level, you may find that water breathing is a better spell choice than fireball.) I will say this, though: The encounters in this book are mean-spirited, but I think that the real punch is in the dozens of sidebars that tell the DM how to make her own malevolent encounters custom-tailored for you, her players. One favorite of mine is "Making a Deceitful Sales Pitch," where I explain how to fool even the least-trusting customer. Every NPC merchant you meet after your DM reads that is going to run you through the ringer, and you might not even know it 'til you're long gone.
Daniel: I liked the simple elegance of the jann puzzle, which was originally created by the aforementioned Mark Waldron, and the three-dimensionalness of the metal sphere encounter. I like encounters where preparation is misleading, so Skip's fire giant was pretty cool, too. A lot of them, though, I'm purposely not reading until the book is out, so I can get that same sense of "ouch!" the rest of you get to experience.
Wizards: What's the toughest puzzle or riddle you've ever come across personally in a D&D campaign?
Gwendolyn: I dread the physical puzzle-box or twisted-bits-of-metal puzzles.
Skip: There was a word-association puzzle in an old AD&D open tournament that completely derailed a playtest group I was in. The answers were "medal" (as in an award) "mettle" (as in testing one's mettle), and "meddle" (as in uninvited interference). We just couldn't wrap our minds around the clue, which was given in the form of a rhyme.
Daniel: I'll be honest, I suck at solving puzzles. Remember the quote saying the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist? I often teased Mike when I was brought aboard that my greatest trick was convincing people I'm pretty smart. Truth be told, I am much better at creating puzzles than at solving them.
Also, I have been the primary DM in my play experience, which is getting close to 25 years now, and I have always created my own adventures. I do remember some evil, evil things in White Plume Mountain, and, of course, the famous backward-firing guns in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Now, as a player in Mark's campaign, I play a headstrong paladin, so to stay in character I leave the puzzle-solving to a couple of other players (Colin McClod and Mary Kay, another "M" friend) and just worry about sending infidels to a fiery hell.
Mike: Well, I'll guess you don't mean mine, since the stuff I do for Dragon and the Star Wars magazines is pretty tough. The best ever sprung on me was when I was in high school. My friends Bruce and Eric came up with a recipe that was actually makeable from ingredients on the spot, but the trick was that it was all about wordplay. Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe I'll stop there and see if I can find the puzzle. Then maybe I'll inflict on the world.
Wizards: In the very first entry, any English major will recognize the names Eliot (the gnome sorcerer) and Prufrock (the delivery boy). Care to tip your hands about a few of the more obscure references in the book?
Skip: Well, there's a nod to Dante's Inferno in there (via Name of the Rose).
Mike: Most of my creatures' names come from somewhere, usually somewhere appropriate to the theme of the encounter. For example, the two fey encountered are named Amarantha and Alphesiboea, both derived from flowers. My favorite reference, though, is in an encounter with a bugbear who sells magic items. His dialogue is drawn straight from a character called Discount Merlin I used to play in the RPGA. When a DM says the litany that begins with "We've got oceans o' potions," somewhere I'll be grinning from ear to ear.
Daniel: Mine were all in-jokes. Aavard was my friend Mike Lee's favorite necromancer and he and my paladin used to go round and round about each other's chosen profession. Then Aavard died, and the problem was solved. The bugbear encounter started as a design test when I originally applied for RPG R&D. Two of my monsters are named for a former Wizards' employee and her daughter. Oh, a maze I used is the exact maze Mike Selinker used for a puzzle article he did for Dragon, I think. And those hill giants' names are based on somebody or another . . . I forget.
Gwendolyn: Thanks for noticing my Prufrock! There are more, but I feel that allusions are better discovered than revealed.
Wizards: This is the sort of book that could easily become a series; once DMs have used all the challenges, they'll certainly want more (provided they have any player characters left alive). Any plans for a follow-up?
Mike: Since these are all underground encounters, Dan has suggested we do a Book of Outdoor Challenges. I know I'd sign up for another tour of duty if that ever happened. For it to happen, of course, each of you reading this has to go out and buy 37 copies of the Book of Challenges. I'm sure you don't mind.
Daniel: Yes, I desperately want to do the Book of Outdoor Challenges, not only because I like getting paid for writing D&D adventures, but because I really think outdoor adventures usually get the shaft, so to speak. I had planned a couple for this book, but we decided that they should all remain indoors. A book of outdoor encounters could use those usually untouched mechanics like weather and encounter distance, as well as open up more tactics in three dimensions, which (as you may have guessed from some of my encounters and sidebars) is seriously lacking in most campaigns.
Wizards: Did anything end up on the cutting room floor as being too tough, too lethal, or too complicated to put in the book?
Gwendolyn: Too lethal? What's that? One small bit of "Window Dressing" was cut. Maybe you'll find it on the Wizards website.
Daniel: I had to tone down the water encounters a little, because water is very lethal and drowning is not a very heroic way to die (unless you're Lindsey from James Cameron's The Abyss). I think my green slime encounter walks the edge. We had to tone down the Gelatinous Cube physics. Those things weight something like 10,000 pounds, so dropping one on a character from any kind of height is pretty much going to guarantee 20d6 damage.
I think complication was more of a problem than lethalness. Not only are encounters hard to describe in words and the (very) limited picture space we had, but you want them to be accessible to DMs of various skills, something that usually isn't taken into account. I once suggested a system of rating adventures on not only character level but also DM experience. So the adventure might say "Suitable for 1st- to 3rd-level characters," and "Recommended for experienced DMs due to multiple villains and numerous grapple checks," or some such. Until then, though, I think making them easy to run is more important that how many characters might die horrible, screaming deaths.
Mike: I would never cut anything because it was too tough, too lethal, or too complicated. That's why they got me involved in the first place.