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Trick or Treat?
By James Wyatt

I 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.

Three Pillars

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. 32 2%
Partially. It’s OK for demon princes to leave a mark, but not run-of-the-mill demons. 442 26%
Partially. It takes a powerful demon (say, a glabrezu or better) to really leave its stamp on the world. 625 37%
Yes. Summoning demons should be a really nasty thing. 567 34%

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. 38 2%
No, I think it should be more morally ambiguous. 314 19%
Maybe if you make a bloody sacrifice, you get a better demon somehow. 451 27%
Yes, only the truly vile summon demons. 847 51%

What do you think of our Yeenoghu story to explain the origin of gnolls?
I hate it. Yondalla, really? 125 7%
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. 332 20%
It’s OK if it’s one story among many. 831 50%
I love it. 365 22%

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. 204 12%
I think you’re really stretching to give Orcus a lasting influence there. 390 23%
I like the idea that Orcus’s influence is present in the renewed Castle Perilous. 292 17%
I like the idea that Orcus’s influence comes through the ironfell of the Warlock Knights. 149 9%
I like Orcus in both Castle Perilous and the ironfell. 310 19%
I think Vaasa in the post-Sundering Realms should bear a much greater mark of Orcus’s lingering influence. 241 14%

James Wyatt
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.
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A different question is: what should the rules cover to help DMs with exploration.

I don't think that should be a list of tricks. I don't think it is solely what the playtest packet tried to cover with movement. I think the need is really for a much larger scope. We have rules for combat and rules for social interaction. The third pillar? Perhaps that should be everything else a PC would do within an adventure?
Posted By: Alphastream1 (11/3/2013 6:38:53 PM)


For me, exploration is wider than used here. It is everything about the discovery process, whether outdoors movement across leagues, exploring for a particular goal, moving through tunnels underground, or discovering a safe place to rest in a dungeon. I wouldn't necessarily consider dungeon room trappings to be exploration, though they can be. It just isn't what I think about in terms of three pillars. "Tricks" are really the interesting bits of any encounter. A variant of that fountain with the gargoyle/nymph could be present in a social encounter or in a combat encounter. Same with nearly any dungeon trappings. That doesn't make "tricks" into exploration. Exploration is much bigger than that.
Posted By: Alphastream1 (11/3/2013 6:34:42 PM)


That first question could do without the negative endings. All of those, possibly rewarded, are valid interpretations across the history of the game. Because of the wording, few will feel inclined to pick them... they basically have to both feel that's the closest definition and hate Exploration. To make it to the end, the reader likely cares about exploration and thinks it is positive.
Posted By: Alphastream1 (11/3/2013 6:32:41 PM)


Exploration is great! How about a reward system (experience points) for successful explorations?
Posted By: Pyrate_Jib (10/31/2013 12:05:04 PM)


What I find interesting is this quote:

"You might sometimes make ability checks during exploration...More often, though, you’ll rely on your own wits as you interact with the DM...Experiment, ask questions, keep notes, and pay attention"

My experiences with the playtest exploration rules have been the exact opposite ("I roll to find traps." "You find a trap." "I roll to disarm the trap." "You disarm the trap."); hopefully this means they're scrapping those rules.
Posted By: G_X (10/31/2013 11:29:14 AM)


I entirely agree that things are very fairly fluid in practice, the tags only naming archetypal forms, much like "rain, sleet, snow, and fog" may all name H2O. I interpreted these terms as calling attention to possibilities, as Mr. Wyatt says above: "tricks" as a term stopped showing up after 1e, and as at least one poster mentioned, tricks as a concept have faded from published DnD adventures in 3-4e. Perhaps naming it is a way of paying attention to it. It would be good to show how fluid these states are thru examples.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (10/31/2013 11:04:57 AM)


The trick to tricks is involving the players (this is starkly seen in map-confounding tricks). For example, there is cause at times to choose to risk getting lost over taking measures to avoid it (it's not choice-forgone dice-rolling), and through normal DM description of the surroundings the players may induce the party was teleported (but not necessarily their destination), and there may be a grinding sound in a rotating room (tho' what causes, and what direction it moves, are up to interpretation and further investigation).

Tricks are a game of player challenge, so if you never "show" the players anything as DM, you're not engaging them, nor are you if you only ask them to roll dice (involving stats is not the same as involving players). I'm very happy Mr. Wyatt is addressing this core aspect of the game.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (10/31/2013 10:31:00 AM)


Over the years I have found that my tricks changed with the game so if there was a trick it was combined with very challenging situation that combined monsters and traps. The Jeweled Necklace upon the Altar represents an aspect of Shar, the Lady of Loss (Filigreed Platinum lined in Diamonds) the altar glows with an unnatural light the rest of the room is shroud in shadows. If someone approaches they will notice bones scattered through out the room (these are from other foolish adventurers and could contain values). If someone takes the necklace it crumbles to dust as it is an illusion and the bones rise with a number of skeletons or wraiths what ever party level is appropriate for your game.
Now nothing says it has to crumble to dust but that seems to fit my thoughts about the Lady of Loss. I would also note that this is a long room that would require someone investigating to go beyond the range or aid of their party standing outside the door but the magical shadows tend t... (see all)
Posted By: Andrekan (10/31/2013 10:03:46 AM)


Some tricks could turn out bad with certain DM's. However, I have found Tricks represent an opportunity to bind story and theme to Dungeons, Vaults, Crypts, Maze, etc. It could be that "Greed" was not tolerated by some Mage or King thus to thwart would be tomb robbers there is a dusty script over the entrance, "All that Glitters is not Gold", meaning anything found within that appears of a metallic value could be trapped in some clever way as to enforce the theme. Whether it be with levers and knobs or the fact that an unguarded pile of gold coins is actually an illusion over a pit of spikes. I tend to try, if I am using a type of Trick, to make the encounter an obvious extravagant situation to clue the Players to consult their notes on the warnings they have found so as to clue them on the possibility of the end result. Sometimes the Rogues find ways to determine if there is any real treasure to be found which most of time in my game there is or if it is actua... (see all)
Posted By: Andrekan (10/31/2013 9:27:51 AM)


This is a very important topic, because it strikes at the root of the problem of current games. Modern games to not challenge the player - they challenge the character. The essensce of old-school gaming is that it was still a GAME that challenged the players, not an immersive story driven epic (not necessarily, anyway). There were no dungeoneering checks, or knowledge (nobility) checks. The game relied on player knowledge, not character.
Posted By: jdarksong (10/31/2013 8:17:17 AM)


And I strongly believe that's a good thing.
Posted By: jdarksong (10/31/2013 8:18:23 AM)


Exploration should be much more than traps, secrets and challenges that can be found in a dungeon. When I think about exploration, I think about travel in the wilderness, or in the Planes, discovering new lands, new creatures, new things, dealing with distances, transports, night camps, weather, confronting with strange magic wonders. Dungeons are little.
Posted By: EmmeDiEmme (10/30/2013 9:15:31 PM)


My favorite traps are not the ones that require a save-or-die, but ones that put the players in a situation that they would not ordinarily volunteer to be in.

My favorite trap of all time is a 50 foot deep pit trap, filled 20 feet with water. Inside the pit, several lacedons (aquatic ghouls) lie in wait. Any player who falls in might become paralyzed and drown...but if they make it to the bottom of the pit, they find treasure scattered among the bones and muck.
Posted By: lightning33 (10/30/2013 7:30:54 PM)


Or you could have regular ghouls chained down under the surface of the water starved and cravingly mad to eat.
Posted By: Andrekan (10/31/2013 9:32:35 AM)


You could also have it about 10 to 20 foot deep with a lid over the pit that latches back after someone falls in so if only one player fell in the pit, the party members above could struggle to unlock the trap door to help their fallen comrade just below...I used this in the Undermountain.
Posted By: Andrekan (10/31/2013 9:37:56 AM)


This is truly a "Trick"
Posted By: Andrekan (10/31/2013 9:38:35 AM)


Under the player mapping comment, it should have had an option, "Do you have your Players map or not?" Almost every game I played in the last 20 years the DM drew the map.

I remember player's drawing the map when I was a kid and that ended pretty quickly because it slowed everything down.

Maybe I'm in the minority, but it seems like a play style choice and shouldn't be required part of the rules.

Posted By: Wrathamon (10/30/2013 4:57:08 PM)


I really hope the new DMG has an expanded and updated version of the appendixes... that's about the only thing I really miss about 1E.
Posted By: Osgood (10/30/2013 4:18:14 PM)


In my opinion the above topic is the most important one when thinking about the course of dnd next. Its the "thing" that's missing more and more from the modules and adventures of the latest editions of dnd. Its the thing that makes the game exciting and should have the main role in any adventure.Some like combat (more or less). Some like roleplaying interaction with NPCs (but its difficult to always have exciting role playing situations. But everyone (in my experience as a DM is fascinated from problem solving situations as described above that are not solved by a die roll.
Posted By: egeorgio (10/30/2013 1:46:16 PM)


When it comes to the question "What do you think of when we talk about exploration as one of the game’s three pillars?," my answer is a combination of the two answers above "something else entirely."
Posted By: tsf (10/30/2013 11:21:19 AM)


Exploring and finding weird Mysteries is a tentpole of my dungeon. I mean that quite literally, I usually have a core mystery behind the creation of the dungeon, and that is often divorced from whomever is currently occupying it. Heck, dungeon? That is usually how I figure out any location: "what is cool about here?"
Posted By: mordicai (10/30/2013 9:41:33 AM)


I want to say I really like traps. They are very useful to the DM and I consider being a primary deal in exploration things. The more controversial thing about here is Save of Die effects. I have nothing against them, I even like them, but how you use them has a big, big importance to them.
I like all things that you presented, and more. The DM should have many tools to craft their adventure/campaign. Just give them!
Posted By: cassi_brazuca (10/30/2013 9:31:54 AM)


Its funny you should mention this, because I was just recalling one of my favourite sessions, when the players were mid heroic level and we did a whole session going from the town to a dungeon to recover an artefact they needed. Along the way we had some fun role playing, dramatic scenery and simple obstacles the players had to figure their way around. But because it arose naturally from the context, it was far more interested and less contrived than it might otherwise have been. I hope that the tricks of the trade include lots of tips, but less rules so that this sort of exploration can go in where its interesting but not be forced. Sometimes it better to get from a to b with little interaction, sometimes you want to spin out the details because its an adventure in itself.
Posted By: Arbanax (10/30/2013 5:07:51 AM)


Although separating tricks into these separate categories makes for an interesting analysis of exploration mechanics, I do feel that breaking things down like this is kind of artificial. As soon as you start putting types of exploration challenges into neat little boxes, players start thinking "Oh, I've got this room figured out - this is an Obstacle."

It's the same reason I'm not a fan of dividing encounters into "combat" and "interaction." Feels artificial. Based on player choices, almost any encounter should have the potential to be combat or interaction.
Posted By: BadMike (10/30/2013 2:26:53 AM)


I'd also say that interaction and combat can take place simultaneously in the same encounter, and exploration often continues throughout everything else.
Posted By: Matt_Sheridan (10/30/2013 12:01:53 PM)


Exploration should be meaningful. It doesn't include checking every flagstone nor simply catching a coach from one town to another. My Friday night group spent a considerable time with their characters travelling into the depths of Xen'drik. Their encounters were put there to a) enable the characters to learn about the environment and b) to discover clues about the rise of a Drow kingdom. They were not in any sense "random encounters". Random encounters are akin to pointless riddles and puzzles in dungeons. If there's a riddle there has to be reason for it and more than just to get them to the next room.
Posted By: Maerlius (10/30/2013 12:48:14 AM)


I like including various tricks and obstacles in the game, but exploration can be a real mixed bag as far as mini-games within the context of DnD go. I have had absolutely horrible DMs who have dumped the PCs in a pit and sat there for 2 hours as we tried to figure a way out. We finally had to wreck a couple of magic weapons and a pair of gauntlets of ogre power tunneling out. I am pretty sure the smug SOB had no other way out. It was dull, pointless and un-fun. That is the sort of exploration the game can do without. So is the careful searching of every flagstone for traps.

Going back to DnD's roots, the Conan and John Carter stories I read had the heroes exploring ancient ruins, lightless passages, and strange grottos. It never had mind-numbing descriptions of them trying levers, searching for traps, checking stones, and so on. They usually just noticed something clever or unusual, found a secret door or hidden lever, and moved on. My opinion is that if it is going to tak... (see all)
Posted By: Clansmansix (10/30/2013 12:23:49 AM)


It's horribly designed "tricks" like the pit you describe that make it important that they have a sizable section in the DM Guide on describing how to design tricks and traps.

My general rule is that if it wouldn't be interesting if read about in a novel or seen in a movie, then I get rid of it.
Posted By: Shroom-Mage (10/30/2013 6:27:33 AM)



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