I Have No Memory Of This Place: Navigating The Underdark Through Your Senses in Dungeons & Dragons

This post ties into the post about Noise & Alert in the Underdark, but can also be used seperately.

What This System Tries To Do

  • The Underdark is vast and dangerous. To try and map it, is folly. Navigation must be done differently; by using all of your senses. Tunnels twist and turn, and may not lead into the direction you were hoping for.
  • This system tries to capture the vibe of the Fellowship of the Ring traveling through the Mines of Moria, more specifically, Gandalf wondering which path to take.

“Oh! It’s that way.”

“He’s remembered!”

“No, but the air doesn’t smell so foul down here.”

Gandalf & Merry

Just Follow Your Nose

A core pillar of this system is that the party has some idea of where they have to go, based on their senses. This can work several ways:

  • One of the party members traveled here, a long time ago. They don’t remember individual tunnels, but they do remember what they sensed walking here – cold air followed by the smell of sulfur, etc.
  • The party has received a cryptic description in an old Dwarven tome, or perhaps Dwarves don’t map out the Underdark at all, and give out sensory directions by default – “climb upwards until you are greeted by the flow of warm air, then turn towards it” is a more practical description than numbering the number of crossroads.
  • The party has a specific goal inside the Underdark, that has a strong sensory ‘milestone’: The smell of fungus spreading from an underground forest, warm air coming from a subterranean hot spring etc.

5 Senses, Underground

Sensory input in caverns can take the following forms:

  • Sound. The distant crashing of an underground waterfall, the wind howling through tunnels, or complete lack of sound.
  • Smell. The smell of rot, fungus, sulfur, salty water.
  • Sight. Particular mould, discolorations of tunnels, bioluminescence.
  • Touch. A flow of air from or to a tunnel, air being warm or cold.
  • Taste. Ew. I guess you could lick rocks to taste them?

Sensory Instructions & How To Follow Them

There are a few ways to play out sensory instructions and how the players interact with them.

Taking Your Time

In all 3 methods mentioned below, the party can also take 2 hours instead of a Skill Check to carefully examine every available tunnel at this intersection. This gives them all sensory information about each tunnel, but would significantly slow down their progress (tying into the Noise & Alert system).

Abstract

Instead of making actual instructions, the players are simply told that they have a set of instructions.

Whenever players arrive at an intersection or crossroads, they can make a relevant check (Perception/Investigation/Survival/Nature etc.) to deduce the right tunnel based on their (abstract) instructions. A DC 10 would represent a forked path, a DC 20 would represent many paths to choose from.

On a failure, the party picks out a path they are sure is the correct one, but isn’t. They wander that path for a while before realizing their mistake and heading back, which takes 1d4 hours.

On a success, they successfully deduce the correct path (“You feel fresh air coming from the left tunnel, which corresponds with the instructions.”). The DM marks a success, with their objective being reached in a certain number of successes.

Semi-Abstract

Here, the players do receive actual instructions; these can look like this, for example:

Follow the sound of crashing water until you reach the underground waterfall. From there, follow the smell of fungus, until you feel a cold wind blow. Walk against this flow of cold air to emerge at your destination.

These instructions would play out like this:

  1. At the first 3 crossroads, listen for the sound of water. This is made at DC 20, 15 and 10, as you get closer to the source. Succeeding the check means you perceive the sound and pick the right tunnel, failing the check makes you pick a wrong tunnel and wander around before heading back, taking 1d4 hours.
  2. The cave containing the underground lake and waterfall has 4 tunnels leading elsewhere. A single DC 20 Wisdom (Perception) check captures your best efforts to choose the correct tunnel, a success leading you onwards, a failure costing you 1d4 hours.
  3. For the next 4 crossroads, the players are to be on the lookout for the sensation of cold air. Each of these crossroads feature only a single path splitting off from their current one, so we set the DC relatively low, to 10. Failing means 1d4 hours lost.
  4. Finally, for the home stretch, 2 intersections at which to follow the flow of cool air, at DC 15, with multiple paths to choose from.

Travel Times

The travel time between intersections and crossroads can be measured in minutes, hours or days, depending on the overall scale of the journey. Likewise, a path or tunnel can also include large caverns and a variety of environments – just keep in mind that you keep the navigational choices limited to crossroads.

Concrete

This is the most elaborate method. It differs from the semi-abstract version in two ways:

  • The DM has an absolute map of the Underdark. The players do not, but can make one themselves, if they wish. Choosing the wrong path does not result in “1d4 hours lost” – it means that the players are not where they think they are, giving the possibility of them getting horrendously lost.
  • The instructions are a puzzle in and off themselves. You can make this as complicated as you want (or just use the Semi-Abstract instructions). This means the instructions look something like this:
    • Always descend, unless the air reeks of sulfur
    • When presented with two paths of equal size, choose the left one, unless from it a cold wind blows
    • After going straight for 3 intersections, a left or right must be taken
    • etc.
  • This is effectively turning navigation into Einstein’s Riddle, making it so that even when the party has all sensory information about the available tunnels, the right choice requires thought.

Back The Way You Came

Backtracking or revisiting previous tracks should be easier than plotting new routes. Implement this by replacing all the sensory deduction with an Intelligence or Wisdom check with Advantage to emulate the memory a character has of the path.

Image source: Pexels

We Cannot Get Out: Giving The Underdark A Mines Of Moria Feel with Noise & Alerts in Dungeons & Dragons

“Quietly now. It’s a four-day journey to the other side. Let us hope that our presence may go unnoticed.”

Gandalf

This is a specific implementation of my Noise & Alert system, applied to travelling through the Underdark.

Part II of this post is up here: I Have No Memory Of This Place: Navigating The Underdark Through Your Senses in Dungeons & Dragons

What This System Tries To Do

  • Implement the Noise & Alert system into the Underdark.
  • Create meaningful decisions surrounding the resource of Time (and indirectly Resources): spending more time in the Underdark is inherently dangerous, leading to an increased chance of encounters (And thus spending Resources such as HP, Hit Die, Spell slots, Rations etc.). Rushing is taking a gamble with your Skills to spend less time navigating, but with the risk of going down the wrong path.
  • The main vibe I’m going for is the Fellowship of the Ring navigating the Mines of Moria.

Noise & Alerts

The Underdark fits the criteria of the Noise & Alert system to a tee: it’s enormous, too big to ever fully conquer and it houses potentially infinite threats. It’s a dangerous, unwelcome location.

Out in the Open

When carefully considering the next path at the middle of a crossroads, trudging through unlit tunnels or climbing through long-abandoned ruins, the party is considered Out in the Open. To not be Out in the Open, the party can take 2 hours in a suitable location (old ruins, a dead end tunnel etc) to hide their tracks. This means that roaming threats will not find the party, and that they are safe.

Instead of the resource of Time, the party can also make appropriate Skill Checks (Survival, Stealth, Nature etc.). This should be a choice between

  • Taking 2 hours without Skill Checks and making no Noise
  • Making a relevant Skill Check to do it faster, but risking making Noise on a failure

Noise

“Noise” is the abstract measure of danger. It indicates the general attention the party has drawn so far. Keep in mind that the party is aware of the current Noise at all times; this is the big, threatening countdown clock (or countup clock) that adds tension. Whether it be Drow, wildlife or other dangers, the more noise the party makes (both literally and figuratively), the more trouble will find them.

Noise is gained through the following ways:

  • For every 2 hours spent Out in the Open, add 1 Noise. This represents moving around, footsteps echoing down tunnels etc. This is not affected by moving quicker or slower; moving slow makes it more likely that some roaming monster stumbles across you, moving quicker makes more noise.
  • Minor environmental obstacles can add Noise, varying from 1 to 1d6. Making jumps across a ravine causing some pebbles to fall down and splash into a lake deep down below, breaking open an ancient wooden door, or fighting/killing unintelligent wildlife all leave traces of the party’s passage.

Noise can be reduced by spending 8 hours while not Out in the Open, for instance during a Long Rest. At the end of the 8 hour period, Noise is reduced by 1d8.

Alert

Whenever the party does anything that might make the more intelligent and dangerous predators of the Underdark more aware of their presence, roll 2d12+Noise. This is the Alert Check, when all the accumulated Noise is brought to bear on the party.

Actions that might trigger an Alert Check:

  • Loud actions in combat, such as casting Fireball
  • Loud actions outside of combat, such as Pippin dropping a bucket down a well in the Mines of Moria
  • Intelligent enemies sounding alarms. Be sure to telegraph this, so players have time to react (“The Drow is reaching for his horn”).

These actions might also add Noise individually.

The Alert Table

Check the result of the Alert Check on the Alert Table. This is an example of the one I use; it can look different based on the average increase of Noise and dice you roll for your Alert Check.

2d12+NoiseResult
1-12No encounter.
13-24Easy encounter in 1d4 minutes.
25-34Medium encounter in 1d4 minutes.
35-44Hard encounter in 1d4 minutes.
45+Deadly encounter in 1d8 minutes.
An example encounter table

For big, multi-day trips, I’d use a table like this:

2d12+NoiseResult
1-24No encounter.
25-35Easy encounter in 1d4 minutes.
36-57Medium encounter in 1d4 minutes.
58-79Hard encounter in 1d4 minutes.
80+Deadly encounter in 1d8 minutes.

This makes Deadly encounters the average after 6 days, with the party gaining 24-8-1d8 Noise per day. You could easily make this table way more granular, or play with the randomness by changing the 2d that you roll.

In Summary

  • Time is a valuable resource in the Underdark. Bad navigational choices cost time, and time = danger.
  • Every 2 hours, or whenever the party is noisy, add Noise. Keep this in sight of the players.
  • Whenever the party is loud, make an Alert Check and resolve the encounter.
  • The encounters caused by Alert Checks can add more Noise and trigger more Alert Checks, causing a cascade of unfortunate events.

Image credit: Pexels

Enormous Locations & Alert – The Amazing Versatility of Mothership’s Panic Mechanic

The following is not my own, original idea – it describes the excellent Panic mechanics as featured in the amazing Mothership RPG, and more specifically, Gradient Descent.

The Purpose Of These Mechanics

From time to time, the plot of one of my D&D campaigns leads me to enormous, abstract locations that are so large in scope, they are almost a region of the overworld. These locations are too big for traditional battle maps, and will usually feature random encounters to keep things exciting.

Some examples include infinite magical libraries, city-sized castles, endless underground labyrinths, and the like.

The following system is a way to make the oppressive threat of enemy presence in this location a constant factor in exploration.

It needs 2 things to work:

  • The aforementioned enormous location, too big to ever fully conquer. You are here on a raid, a quick in-and-out. You are not welcome.
  • An infinite threat. The reason you are here on a quick raid, is because you stand no chance against the forces working against you. The library is infinite and has infinite Librarians, the castle has more guards than you could ever handle etc.

I will use the example of the Infinite Library to illustrate the system.

Alert Levels & Alert Checks

Whenever the party acts in a way that is detectable to the threat, the Alert Level goes up. In our example, making noise will alert the Librarians.

The players need to have a grasp on the impact of their actions so that they can make informed decisions in managing the risk.

If they notice a chest behind a gate with iron bars and they make the effort to inspect the gate, inform them that opening the gate might make noise. Searching a room for valuable books might require an Investigation check, and failure might still yield books, but also generate noise.

Depending on the actions of the players, you can either add a flat value or let them roll a dice (1d6 noise added). The Alert Level should always be visible to the players.

The Alert Level symbolizes the ‘suspicion’ that the guardians of a location have of player presence. Leaving traces of your passage (a broken lock, a knocked out guard) can also raise the Alert Level.

Alert Checks

Alert Checks are triggered by loud, overt actions. In our example of the Library, this might take the form of

  • Tripping a magical alarm
  • Causing loud noises, such as an enormous bookcase falling over
  • A Librarian spotting you and letting out an alarming screech
  • Using loud magic in combat

and so forth.

To make an Alert Check, the players roll 2d6.

Depending on the size of your table, it can also be 2d10 and 2d8 – that’s up to you. We use two dice to get a nice spread of probability. You add the current Alert Level to the dice roll.

This is where the DM checks the Alert Table. This might look something like this:

RollResult
2-4No response. Lucky!
5-9You hear a Librarian approach.
10-123 Librarians approach.
13-155 Librarians rush in.
16-185 Librarians rush in, led by the fearsome Head Librarian.

This means that if the players are quiet, there’s a chance that no Librarians show up. However, if the Alert Level is at least 3, there will always be some response.

This is where the fun begins

The fun part of this system is that the response caused by the Alert Check is likely to increase the Alert Level. If one Librarian shows up, it is in the party’s best interest to hide – because a fight is likely to make noise. If it manages to screech, it could trigger another Alert Check instantly, with perhaps 1d6 Alert Level added (in this case, be sure to telegraph the screech, so the players can stop it, if they’re quick).

Modifying This System

The tables and rolls allow for a lot of customization – perhaps there’s only a single monster roaming a labyrinth, which shows up on an Alert Check of 25, and you roll 2d10 to make the check. See what works for you!

The system can also be used in different ways.

  • Perhaps the party is climbing an enormous unstable tower, and small movements and climbs add to the Alert Level as ‘instability’, and major jumps across the broken floor trigger Alert Checks and falling debris.
  • Magic might be unstable in the current area, and every spell adds to the Alert Level in the form of ‘Arcane Charge’, with the Alert Check causing an ‘Arcane Discharge’.

4 Homebrew Rules To Make D&D Follow Fiction, Not Rules

I’ve been using the lockdown for, you guessed it, a lot of tabletop rpg’s. All this time has given me the opportunity to explore more outside of the boundaries of strictly D&D. As I’m about to return to D&D, I want to include mechanics that I’ve fallen in love with from systems such as Dungeon World into D&D without breaking the whole game. Below you’ll find my attempt to do so!

If you’re not interested in my preamble, you’ll find my rules at this point in the page.

Rules versus Fiction

Having experimented with some RPG systems, it seems to me that they exist on a scale from simulation to narrative.

A purely simulation-driven system will use (a lot!) of dice rolls to approach reality: Dice rolls to hit something accounting for forces such as gravity, distance, environmental conditions etc. After that, you might roll for armor penetration, chance to dodge, how many layers of armor get damaged to what degree and so forth. I like certain aspects of these systems, but more from a distance: actually having to roll that many times with so many numbers involved is generally a bit too crunchy for my liking.

A system based on narrative would effectively be a choose-your-own-adventure book: Low on elements generally considered gameplay (and as such, perhaps low on dice rolls/random chance) and more on fiction/narrative impact.

I would put OSR roleplaying games, and for instance Cyberpunk 2020, more on the simulation side of this scale. I haven’t ventured deep into heavy narrative-based games, but it seems to me that Powered By The Apocalypse games are definitively closer to the narrative end: They include mechanics on how to tell a story through dice-rolls: Something that D&D severely lacks, in my opinion. D&D would, by this scale, sit somewhere in the middle.

Rules before Fiction/Fiction before Rules

In that sense, I would define D&D as generally putting Rules Before Fiction: We roll the dice, apply associated rules, and then are free to make up something in-fiction on our own.

Fiction being second to rules is definitely visible in combat: Combat ends to come down to

I attack the goblin. I rolled a 15.

You hit. Roll damage.

I rolled an 8.

The goblin is defeated.

unless consciously dedicated to prevent this from happening. It is possible for a master storyteller to weave those rolls into a narrative, but the rules, by the fundamental workings of the system, always come first.

Is this a bad thing? No, not at all. It’s simply how D&D works, and it can definitely works well enough for a lot of people. However, as I’ve started to realize by playing/looking at different systems, I’m more interested in Fiction before Rules. This puts more pressure on the players and DM to roleplay, as many actions in the game leave narrative hooks and blanks to fill in.

In my experience, many Powered by the Apocalypse games work this way. A ranged attack in Dungeon World is described like this:

Volley
When you take aim and shoot at an enemy at range, roll+Dex.

On a 10+ you have a clear shot—deal your damage.

On a 7–9, choose one (whichever you choose you deal your damage):

• You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger of the GM’s choice

• You have to take what you can get: -1d6 damage

• You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by one

Dungeon World

Now, this does not put the fiction before the rules in the strictest sense: After all, there is a literal rule telling you to invoke fiction. What it does do, however, is give clear prompts for fiction. Of the conditions one has to choose when rolling a 7-9, every one of those invites the player or GM to explain more about why this happens – which can then be further integrated into roleplay.

A more clear usage of fiction before rules is found in the usage of Tags: Simple one-word descriptors of weapons, monsters and items that tell you about a property they have. A dragon is frightening – with no extensive explanation on Wisdom saves and the radius of effect. No, the dragon is frightening in fiction – and the system trusts for the GM and players to know what that means.

Why are you telling me this, though?

Yes, good point, I got caught in a bit of a ramble there. My core point is that it’s interesting to find ways to introduce ways to make fiction a bigger part of D&D. Secondarily, I want to keep players engaged – I don’t want combat to feel ‘safe’ in the sense that when it’s not my turn, I don’t need to pay attention. Finally, I’m not really interested in the binary nature of how many skill checks are resolved in D&D: a fail/success mechanic is, to me, not very narratively interesting.

The Homebrew Rules I’m Introducing

1. Defense Rolls

First, I’m going to literally implement Players Make All The Rolls from the Variant Rules of Wizards of the Coast.

The players roll their characters’ attacks as normal, but you don’t roll for their opponents.
Instead, when a character is targeted by an attack, the player makes a defense roll.

A defense roll has a bonus equal to the character’s AC − 10.
The DC for the roll equals the attacker’s attack bonus + 11.

  • On a successful defense roll, the attack misses because it was dodged, absorbed by the character’s armor, and so on.
  • If a character fails a defense roll, the attack hits.
  • If the attacker would normally have advantage on the attack roll, you instead apply disadvantage to the defense roll, and vice versa if the attacker would have disadvantage.
  • If the defense roll comes up as a 1 on the d20, then the attack is a critical hit.
  • If the attacker would normally score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20, then the attack is a critical hit on a 1 or 2, and so forth for broader critical ranges.

2. Skill Checks, Revamped

Skill checks will have a DC ranging from 13-ish to 20-ish.
Lower DCs will not be used – things you try that would have a DC are assumed to just succeed, as you are all capable adventurers.
Skill checks will be rated in the following way:

  • Fail by 4 or more: Something bad happens. It can be that you fail, or that something seemingly disconnected goes wrong. It simply means that I will use my magical DM powers to escalate the situation. Alternatively, I might ask the player in which way their action goes wrong, and roll with what they come up with.
  • Fail by 3 or less: You might succeed but at a prize. There might be a hard choice or worse outcome, or you might succeed too good (collateral damage).
  • Succeed: You did it, successfully!

Why?

I borrow the ‘partial success’ mechanic from Dungeon World, as I think it creates more interesting skill checks. Simply failing isn’t interesting for the story we’re telling together. It slightly muddies current DCs in D&D, but who hasn’t fudged DC rolls when players are really close on an important role, anyways? This method (hopefully) codifies escalation, by which I mean that I try to clearly indicate that I will make bad stuff happen on partial successes. When you almost make a roll, you can basically still choose to succeed, but at a prize – it gives me as DM permission to make something go bad, or escalate.

3. Damage By Players

The following tries to implement the ideas of a partial success on combat rolls. I find simply missing and waiting for your next turn, you guessed it, not very interesting for the story. These rules can of course be tweaked, by making a full hit mean “roll damage dice” and a glancing blow mean “half damage” or “roll two damage dice, pick the lowest result”.

When you roll to hit and…

  • Roll a nat 20, you always hit, and deal the max of your damage die + modifier + another max damage die in damage.
  • Roll AC or higher, you deal your max damage die in damage (+ modifier).
  • Roll AC-3, AC-2 or AC-1, you roll your damage die and add the modifier.
  • Roll AC-4 or lower: You miss.
  • Roll a nat 1: Critical fail. I make up something fun.

Why?

It speeds up combat with less dice rolls to be made, while sticking more to the power fantasy of the class: a Barbarian can more reliably dish out his 12 damage, a Rogue becomes a true assassin. In my ruling, this does not apply to enemies.

Mind that my DM style means that I’m more interested in “a horde of enemies appear! Can you defeat them on time to stop X?” or “But what does it meaaaaan for the story when you kill all these foes?” rather than “You are level 6. A guard appears. Lol you miss”.

4. No Initiative

Currently, rolling initiative can feel arbitrary, and signals that we stop having the regular D&D conversation and start playing the combat mini-game. I want to blur those lines more.

  • When combat starts, because either the enemy or you attack, you don’t roll for initiative.
  • We keep the conversation structure (DM describes situation > Describe your reaction > Roll if needed), with the party that initiated combat probably going first, unless the story dictates that they don’t.

The orc in front of Maloc draws his weapon. Maloc, what do you do?

The orc who already had his weapon drawn suddenly strikes at Maloc (Resolve attack as usual).

  • In combat, you have access to all your combat options. Movement goes by movement speed – you take a regular turn.
  • Turn order is decided by both parties: in general, both sides will take turns, and both sides can choose when to take their turn. The fiction can break this however – it’s part of the conversation of play.
  • Once everyone had their turn, the ’round’ is done, and everyone gets a turn again.
  • No one gets to go twice before everyone had their turn, unless a creature has Legendary Actions etc.
  • Initiative bonuses might be used as a tie-breaker when two opposing parties want to act at the same time.

Why?

I want turns to feel more dynamic, and this forces you to not just lean back and only pay attention during your turn. It allows for different strategy, as you can choose when to interject. Downside: Initiative modifiers are less important.

What do you think?

Bunch of hogwash? Interesting food for thought? Let me know!

Right Behind You: Building A Combat Encounter Around Teleporting

I’m absolutely in love with Dungeondraft – a beautiful and easy-to-use dungeon generation tool built by the creator of the equally fantastic Wonderdraft.

One of Dungeondraft’s built-in assets gave me an idea for an interesting combat encounter centered around short-range teleportation. I will lay out some of the possibilities here, so that maybe it’ll inspire you to do the same!

Portal in Dungeondraft
The portal asset in Dungeondraft, in this case colored red and given a red glow.

The Basics

Before we start, let’s lay out some basic rules:

  • The teleport circle transports any creature that steps on it to a circle of the corresponding color.
  • To use a teleporter you just used, you need to get off of it, and step on it again.
  • If the teleport circle you arrive at is occupied by another creature, it takes 3d10 force damage and is pushed 5 ft. in a random direction (a telefrag!)

When introducing teleport circles to our players, we would do well to make sure we introduce the mechanics in a fair way. Players need to have a chance to figure out the mechanics in a reasonably safe environment without life-or-death odds at first. Once we’ve done that, we can go crazy with the twists. More on that in my post about introducing fair gameplay twists.

Ideas For Integrating Teleporters Into An Environment

There are multiple ways of integrating teleporters, here are a few I came up with. I’m interested in hearing yours!

Folding Time And Space

Let’s start by color-coding the portals for our convencience. Red portals link to red, blue to blue and so forth.

Example 1: Color-coded portals in a map made in Dungeondraft.

This already creates really interesting possibilities:

  • Martial fighters see their range extended to a far greater degree, by being able to freely zip around the map.
  • Ranged fighters need to be cautious, as enemies can easily close the distance.
  • The telefragging mechanic discussed earlier can provide interesting opportunities for bonus damage. Be sure to introduce this in a safe way, however, by having an enemy do this to another one accidentally, for instance.

The Wildcard

What if the portals are not predictable, with magic fluctuations causing unexpected results?

Example 2: Portal disco

Give all the portals the same color (or different colors, to use Dungeondraft’s lighting effects). Assign every portal a number from 1-6. Whenever any creature uses a portal, roll a D6. The creature will appear on the corresponding portal. If the same portal as they were on is rolled, have nothing happen (“I will make my escape! *Flash of light* Wait, what?”) or simply reroll.

So Close And Yet So Far Away

Introduce some more obstacles to your room, like a lava flow for instance:

Example 3: Mind the gap

This circle mechanic allows players and enemies to move around quickly (perhaps better served with some larger distances between the portals and such). This means that chases can happen quite easily, yet ranged fighters have free line of sight. Perhaps have a dangerous, nimble archer harass the players from afar, making his escape through a portal whenever he can?

Example 4: The Hourglass

With a slightly different portal layout, we can create an hourglass-like flow to the room. This means that vertically, distances count as ‘bigger’, as it takes an extra step to get to the neighboring island.


I hope this gave you some ideas. Got any variations of your own? Let me know!

“How Were We Supposed To Know That?” – Introducing Fair Gameplay Twists in D&D

I’ve written previously about borrowing narrative techniques and implementing them into Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is a shared narrative experience, and narrative techniques can definitely enhance the game. However, Dungeons & Dragons is also a game – so why not borrow techniques from that other type of game, video games?

Combat in Dungeons & Dragons can feel a bit “samey” after a while. How does one make encounters not feel like a random “tank and spank”? Enter the “gimmick”, the gameplay twist: Obstacles that require a new way of thinking to succesfully navigate. We do it with puzzles, so why not introduce this into your combat?

Introducing: Gimmicks

This pretty cool paper I found on Google analyzes risk, reward and gameplay. To quote:

That said, there are indeed factors that players focus on when judging whether a mechanics is “good” or not. (…) As for game mechanics, challenge and reward come from three mechanics-related activities: learning the mechanics; using the mechanics as a tool for gameplay in ordinary situations; using the mechanics as a tool for gameplay in extra-ordinary situations, in presence of external factors that may alter the ordinary working of the mechanics.

Carlo Fabricatore, GAMEPLAY AND GAME MECHANICS DESIGN: A KEY TO QUALITY IN VIDEOGAMES

We want to fairly introduce new mechanics: We want the players to know the risks of what they’re doing, so that it feels proportional (challenge), and we want the positive outcome to feel earned (reward).

The party enters the Lost Crypt of Marguxal the Mad. The first room is large, square and cavernous. Dulgron the dwarf steps forward and triggers a pressure plate. 20 poisonous darts fly from the ceiling, straight down, striking the dwarf and dealing 20 poison damage.

Could Dulgron have prevented this grim fate with an Investigation check, looking for traps? Sure, but he did not have any particular incentive, besides meta knowledge that there might be traps. Let’s workshop the above example as we work through this article.

The Invisible Tutorial

A lot of analysis has been done on Half-Life 2, and for good reason: it’s still an amazing example of game design.

Mark Brown from Game Maker’s Toolkit on Half-Life 2’s way of introducing enemies.

Half-Life 2 is a genuine masterclass in game design. It is definitely a useful parallel to D&D because, as Mark Brown states in his video:

Throughout the whole game, Valve expertly directs the action and the player, and – without ever taking control of the camera – manages to make you see something, feel something, make you jump, or make you laugh.

Mark Brown, Game Maker’s Toolkit

I’d argue that this is exactly what a Dungeon Master should strive towards: Show, don’t tell, and find ways to let gameplay clarify the game.

As the video highlights, the barnacle is introduced in such a way:

  • We first see what the new element does in a safe environment.
  • We then interact with the new element in familiar, normal circumstances.
  • We then build upon that, interacting with the element in unusual circumstances.

Introducing An Element In A Safe Environment

Let’s take our Lost Crypt example again, and introduce the new element (poisonous darts) in a safe environment:

The party enters the Lost Crypt of Marguxal the Mad. A long hallway stretches before them. Halfway through, they find a skeleton, the decaying remnants of adventurer’s gear hanging from its bones. A DC 13 Medicine Check would reveal that the skull was pierced from the top by multiple projectiles, and that the body appears to have fallen backwards as it was struck. A DC 13 Investigation Check looking for possible traps reveals that the tile this adventurer stepped on is indeed slightly different from the rest, being from a slightly darker stone. This trap seems disabled.

Okay, good! No harm done so far! We are rewarding inquisitive players with information that they’ll be able to use later, and if they decide not to use it, hey, not our fault.

Interacting With The Element in Normal Circumstances

We gave the party fair warning, so now we can add some challenges to the mix:

The hallway opens into a wider area, with a large bronze door at the end of it. A DC 12 Perception Check reveals a pattern of trapped tiles on the floor, but a safe path is available. Near the door is a larger strip of trapped tiles, and the door itself is surrounded by trapped tiles.

What we have here is:

  • A simple puzzle, navigating the pattern on the floor.
  • A challenge to be solved: will they try to trigger the tiles by throwing items on top, or try to jump the larger band of trapped tiles?
  • A more abstract puzzle: Will they try to use the same solution as with the large strip of tiles, or be creative through Mage Hand or other applications?

Interacting With The Element In Unusual Circumstances

Now we get to the fun part! The players inevitably know about the tiles and how they work. We can play with it now!

The third chamber is large and square, 11 by 11 tiles. A DC 12 Perception Check makes it clearly visible that every other tile here is trapped, with the ‘safe’ tiles forming a sort of grid. As the party navigates through the room, the doors shut behind them, and 6 tribal warriors leap from the shadows above. Roll initiative.

This is the final test of this gimmick, where the challenge and reward reach their climax.

  • The warriors will try to shove the players onto trapped tiles. The players can, of course, try the same.
  • The room has no other obstacles, providing clear line of sight for ranged attackers, but hindering combatants that need to get close. Perhaps the tribal warriors attack from range, and perhaps the pattern on the floor is more complicated than just a grid, requiring the melee combatants to move in more complicated ways.

To Summarize

  • Introduce new gameplay twists and gimmicks in a relatively safe environment, and reward the players with knowledge about its functionality should they be so thorough as to investigate it.
  • Introduce challenges by playing around with different ways this gimmick can work, now that the players have a basic understanding of its internal logic and rules.
  • Combine the challenges and rewards by introducing unusual elements. Add more challenges such as enemies, but reward the player by letting them use this mechanic against these enemies, as well.

I hope this gave you some new ideas. Let me know how you introduce these new elements to your table!