Adventure Design Fumbles
Copyright © Robert Wenner 2003
Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion
I received great feedback on my last article on adventure design fumbles.
Well, there was exactly one piece of feedback, but that is more than I received on
all previous articles. So, here are some more issues to consider when
designing or improvising adventures. This time I'll focus on buildings,
dungeons, and rooms.
The one and only twisting, turning corridor
The corridor leads from the main door to the stairs to the next level,
through every room (or at least each room can be entered from the corridor),
twisting and turning through the castle. Its purpose in the
adventure module was to make sure the player-characters encountered all the monsters -
a very typical and cliched dungeon crawl.
There are some very obvious problems with this. Each
time the inhabitants want to leave, they have to walk all the way. This is at best inconvenient
- it is outright fatal if the castle burns or is under siege.
Further, it is expensive to build.
It is also disturbing. If the corridor leads through barracks, the
inhabitants may be disrupted by people moving around. In some kind of kitchen,
alchemical laboratory, or meeting room, daily work may be interrupted by people passing through.
Some people may be disturbed even if someone keeps passing through the corridor past
What's the point of windows?
Have you ever looked at a module map and found rooms lying inside buildings? No
windows. If the building isn't inhabited by undead or creatures with
infra-vision, the owner must spend money on providing artificial light
in terms of installed torches or lamps or magical illumination. Alternatively
needs to grab a lamp
or torch before entering the room or corridor. Using flint and steel before
you enter a room quickly becomes annoying.
Most people, even die-hard evil overlords of darkness and destruction, would dislike
living in such a room.
Kitchens and latrines are especially in need of windows for obvious reasons.
Elaborate traps and locks
Magical traps that shift the victim to another plane of existence may sound
cool... but are usually overkill. Why go to such an effort? If magic isn't for
free in your world, it is likely that other traps are vastly cheaper. You
could summon some guardians, if magic is essential. I can imagine better
ways to spend my money, though.
This becomes even less credible when a stinking Orc or Goblin tribe employs
such a trap. Orcs and the like are best suited with simple (but
nonetheless effective) traps, such as a (covered) pit. This is my favorite trap. It
is easy to produce (even Orcs can dig). It can be placed almost everywhere.
It can be easily covered. It is easy to maintain. It is effective. It is
flexible: make it very deep to kill the victim, or fill it with water
to capture your victim alive. It can even be extended by placing two
pits next to each other. Anyone who succeeds in jumping over the first pit falls straight
into the second.
Locks are similar, but with another focus. Of course you could protect your
home with three locks, a huge bar in front of the door, and an electric
device sounding an alarm when the door is opened. But, it is quite
inconvenient to unlock three locks, remove the bar, and turn off the
electric device, then leave the building, and arm the electric device, put
the bar in place and lock three locks. Sooner or later the average person
would tire of such drastic security. Most people prefer a simple, but effective mechanism
and decide how much security they require and what amount of inconvenience they are
willing to pay for it.
So, place one usable lock on your chests and doors, rather than lots of cheap ones.
The well known secret door
There is a corridor designed to kill intruders. It is trapped, dangerous and deadly.
You cannot have your minions use that corridor - either they would all have to know how
to deactivate the traps (and do you trust them?) or you need to
recruit new minions every week. So, the locals never use that
corridor. Instead they use a secret door. Of course it is concealed and no intruder
could ever find out which stone to push. Right? Wrong. Unfortunately, frequent use leaves
its marks. For example, compare the wall next to your light switch with
another part of the wall. Around my light switch the wall is darker than
elsewhere, because entering in the dark I may have to feel where the switch
is. And believe me, I do wash my hands more often than your average goblin
Remember also that secret doors are much more complicated to create. The average Orc won't
be bothering with them.
Thus, secret doors should be really secret and rarely used. As a corollary, preserving their
secrecy forbids placing (lit) torches in escape tunnels.
Consider this, too: why build a special "intruders corridor" with elaborate
traps and expensive defense mechanisms? Just stick to what has served well for
centuries: huge, thick walls, guards (perhaps with dogs), and lots of arrows,
boiling oil and the like.