Spring the Trap

This is going to be one of those partially writing/partially gaming posts, so get ready for some odd leaps in logic on my part. I want to start with a meme I saw on Dungeons and Dragons Memes the other day regarding dungeon crawls in D&D:

I hate this list. Hate it. Hate it hate it. It represents what I consider to be everything wrong with how Dungeons and Dragons is frequently played and it also happens to be a blueprint on how not to write a suspenseful story or novel. Let me explain:

People avoid conflict and tension as much as they can in their daily lives. If something looks dangerous, we are unlikely to attempt it without ample preparation with the (accurate) understanding that doing so increases our odds of survival. This is a sensible and reasonable way to live one’s life.

It also makes for bad storytelling.

Of course, not every moment of our days are devoted to having an awesome story to tell. If it were, we’d take more risks and do more dangerous things because, well, it would make a great story. Yes, we would punch that guy on the train playing his music without headphones. Yes, we would give the sketchy homeless person a ride on the handlebars of our moped. Yes, we would go on solo vacations to distant lands without a hotel reservation on a whim. We’d hitchhike more.

We don’t do all this, for the most part, because we recognize the odds of unpleasant things happening to us in the real world. In a story (or an RPG), however, unpleasant things happening is the express point of the exercise. Nobody reads a story about how a guy wakes up, goes to his job, does his work, comes home, and goes to bed. That isn’t a story (or at least not an interesting one). We need conflict, of course, but conflict is also not enough. A story where a guy goes to work, discovers he has a hugely important meeting in five minutes and he left his materials at home, but then realizes he can just use the backup materials on his work computer, prints them out, and all is well is also a super boring story. Nothing came of the conflict.

Now, to that stupid list up there. When I read that advice, this is what I see:

  1. Research Your Destination: There must be no surprises, unpleasant or otherwise. We must know everything before beginning.
  2. Explore Thoroughly and Cautiously: Everything must be done slowly and methodically so that no surprises crop up and no mistakes are made.
  3. Stay Together: IF something goes wrong, the problem can be immediately solved with little difficulty and at minimal risk to others.
  4. Prepare Accordingly: We must have access to all the appropriate tools at the appropriate times so that obstacles can be smoothly overcome.
  5. Exercise Teamwork: Interpersonal conflicts are forbidden and independent goals must not be pursued.
  6. Check for Secret Traps and Doors: Again, no surprises! Slow down!
  7. Take Everything That Isn’t Nailed Down: Approach this dramatic event with all the drama of a moving company packing up a house.

Everything on that list is devoted to making certain the dungeon crawl is as boring as possible, which is to say they are designed to guarantee nobody gets in trouble and everything goes to plan. This list exists for two reasons: (1) there are people who see D&D as a resource management enterprise and nothing else and (2) there are a variety of bad GMs out there who see it as their job to have an adversarial relationship with the party, forcing the players to adopt these behaviors so they don’t die. In the first case, I would insist everybody is entitled to their own kind of fun and more power to them (though I don’t care for it myself). In the second case, read this list, GMs, and adjust your ways.

What most players refuse to acknowledge, but is nevertheless true, is that the best gaming experiences are when things go wrong. This is because when the players make mistakes, tension, excitement, and conflict abound. When the players sit down and concoct an elaborate plan designed to avoid any kind of trouble, it is the GMs duty – their sacred obligation – to mess those plans up as soon as possible and in the worst of all ways. Players often think the GM is being “mean” or “unfair” when, in actuality, the GM is giving the players the greatest possible opportunity for fun. Because (and this is the other thing players are not aware of) they are going to win! They are! By the skin of their teeth and suffering consequences galore and maybe not in the way they intended, but they totally are and they are going to love it.

If he’d estimated the weight of that bag of dirt right, this scene would have sucked.

This is directly analogous to storytelling. If your characters make an elaborate plot that is almost sure to succeed, then you, as the writer, can’t have that plot go off exactly as planned. You just can’t. Once you do, then you have abandoned all dramatic tension and eliminated all suspense. We all just shrug and go “oh, well, that was a lot of buildup about nothing.” You need things to go sideways! Polonius needs to get his ass stabbed through the curtain! The hyperdrive on the Falcon has to be broken! Indiana Jones needs to spring the trap!

So, here are my competing pieces of dungeon crawling advice:

  1. Do Minimal Research: If the old geezer in the village says the temple is inhabited by vengeful spirits, believe him. He probably knows what he’s talking about, right? No way it’s a death cult disguised as ghosts. That’d just be silly.
  2. Go Directly for the Goal: There is almost certainly nothing of interest in those little side passages. The main thing is to get in, get out, and get on with your lives. Move quickly! The time of the Planetary Alignment is nigh!
  3. Split Up!: You can cover more ground that way. Also, some of you can get in trouble and need rescuing, which gives everybody a chance to look awesome.
  4. Travel light!: Nobody wants to traipse around a dungeon with a donkey in tow or have to pay henchmen to guard your campsite or any of that garbage. Potion of Animal Friendship? Pfft – that probably won’t come in handy anyway. Extra sword? Why? Your favorite sword should do just fine. And leave the rope behind – rope is heavy.
  5. Those Morons Need to Listen to You!: Look, you’re the wizard, right? You are the smartest. Who cares what the paladin thinks is a good plan – you’ve got a better plan and, when it works (it won’t!), then everybody will recognize you as the leader of this stupid little band. Excelsior!
  6. Spring the Trap!: If you don’t spring the trap, nobody will fall into a hole and maybe die. And seriously, what fun is that, anyway?
  7. Gold is Heavy: You know what’s more fun that haggling over objet d’art and divvying up silver pieces? Moving the story forward, that’s what. You’re playing a game, not saving for your retirement. Take the cool magical junk and leave the rest behind. Nobody cares how much money you have.
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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 30, 2018, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts, Gaming and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I know this post is old, but I was looking for that particular image and found it here and read your opinions, all I have to say is, wow, arrogant much? These guidelines are perfectly reasonable *if* you’re running an old school dungeon crawl.

    /begin rant

    Truth is there are 3 roles in any Pen and Paper RPG: The Player, The GM, and The Writer. Player roles are obvious, but often times the line between GM and Writer gets blurred. Many GM’s craft their own stories, their own worlds, and are setting out to tell an epic story. In these cases they are assuming both the role of Writer and GM; and in these cases, I would agree with you.

    However, there are GM’s out there that run pre-writ campaigns, and pre-writ dungeons, worlds crafted by someone else (The Writer). In these cases, the GM is simply an Arbiter. They are responsible for interpreting and enforcing the rules, guiding the action, and telling the story as is. There is nothing I hate more then when I feel like a GM is pulling punches and letting me or my group win for the sake of *the story*. If my idiot wizard decided to go in front of the Barbarian and gets one-shotted by a Troll, well… he fucked up, it’s not bad GMing, and it’s not bad writing, it’s bad player tactics!

    Sometimes the players don’t want heavy role playing, they want a game of strategy and tactics. If you want heavy role playing and storytelling, play Savage Worlds system, or White Wolf, they are designed for Storytelling (White Wolf’s system is called the Storyteller system for Christ’s sake). Pathfinder and DnD (older versions) though, many times, are games of tactics first, and storytelling second, and you know what? That’s okay. Some people want that, and have fun with that. Just because you don’t doesn’t mean that these guidelines are worthless or boring.

    Would you say that reading a book on chess strategies makes chess boring? I don’t think so. It’s a strategy game, and knowing the effective strategies makes you a better player, and ultimately makes the game more fun.

    If a group wanted to try to beat say, The Temple of Elemental Evil, or the Tomb of Horrors, they better damn well follow these guidelines or they are going to lose. The point here is how well they can apply their various tactics to beat the challenges that a (sometimes very sadistic; I’m looking at you Gygax *RIP*) Writer has crafted for them.

    /end rant

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