Sunday, February 17, 2013

Door, Again

I decided upon reflection that my previous post wasn't as on topic as I originally intended, so here's a more relevant piece.

I have run a lot of D&D campaigns over the years, and the first door of the first dungeon is a more important decision that you might think; it can set player expectation for encounters for the rest of the campaign. I am assuming here that you're running a campaign that has a certain amount of dungeon crawling in it, because if you're not I strongly recommend finding another roleplaying system with decent non-combat support, for example any other system at all. There may be a long delay, there may be other encounters beforehand, but at some point you'll end up with the players in a dungeon. It could be a castle, a mansion heist, old ruins, a cave system, the non-Euclidean planes of chaos, or an actual dungeon. The end result is the same: the players won't be in it and will cross a threshold and be in it.

What, then, is your first door? The first question is whether or not it's locked, and straight after that whether or not it's trapped. An unlocked, untrapped door sends a message to the person playing the rogue that he may have invested too heavily in the dungeoneering skills. Let's assume the door is locked and trapped. Is it locked in the traditional sense that there is a key for it somewhere? Maybe there is a key and you've set the DC of the lock too high for any of the players to be able to pick because you want them to go on a fetch-quest. Now the players know that sometimes you're going to gate them regardless of character abilities. You could choose to have no key and force the players to use the skills they've chosen. The other kind of lock, which is really a construct of the fantasy world, is the puzzle. Puzzle locks are a clear statement that sometimes players are going to have to solve things independently of their character sheets. Puzzle locks require the best understanding of the group you're playing with. With some groups it might be all right to lock a door with a puzzle based on the Fibonacci sequence, other groups may think Fibonacci is that thin spiral pasta. Can you make a Shakespeare reference, can you use the Macarena, is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile assumed knowledge? If it's trapped, how dangerous is the trap? It might just be the character who tries to open the door suffers a small amount of damage, enough to communicate that they should check for traps in the future but there's no massive penalty for failure. Or it could be the other end of the scale, fatal or near fatal damage. The difference between these two options dictates more than anything else the speed at which players will move forward in the future. There's nothing quite like a member of the party getting killed before the party has even entered the dungeon to make players search every flagstone exhaustively before setting one foot into a room.

Beyond the mechanical decisions, there's also thought that needs to be given to the nature of the door. Let's say it's a pretty standard swords and sorcery dungeon with a large stone door at the entrance. It's probably not just a large stone door, though. Moss lays thickly across its base, cobwebs woven by ruby red spiders hang like curtains. Perhaps grotesque carvings decorate its front, demons engaged in the most perverse acts of torture and abuse, their bronzed claws green with age. If you're elaborate, players won't assume any mention of cobwebs immediately means giant spiders (giant by D&D standards that is). If, by contrast the description is that the door is five feet by ten feet and seems to be thick stone, then future details are likely to be regarded as important. As a DM it can be disappointing to have to say "I know I said there was a religious mural on the wall, but that was just flavour text. It's been an hour, someone please just pull the damned lever already."

It can be tempting when designing a dungeon to start with the cool boss fight at the end, with the loot, or the fiendishly clever twist on the Tower of Hanoi you have planned for the main chamber, depending on your personal preferences. As with any other endeavour, however, remember that first impressions count, and most of the time the first impression is a door.

Next week: still data.

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