Explore vs Repel

   Just like in everything else, there is a political spectrum in tabletop gaming. You have the right, the left, and the center. Some games are focused on Exploration – that’s towards the left. Other games are focused on Repelling – that leans towards the right. When there’s no clear, definite enemy against whom both characters and players struggle constantly, that game is to the left of the spectrum. When there is a clear enemy to push back, that game is more to the right. One of the key tenets of fascism is that there’s an “other” against whom “we” must defend. Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS are good examples of “Exploration” games. Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer are good examples of “Repelling” games.

   High concept settings are not necessarily to the right of the spectrum, but one thing’s for sure, it’s hard leaning to the right when you’re in a generic, low concept fantasy kingdom in the middle of a generic, fantasy forest, and heading towards the nearest generic, fantasy town.

   Everybody knows Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a racist, but I don’t think his message was a racist warning. It was a warning of a much greater magnitude: science and reason both have their limits – the rest is limitless and unimaginable. Dark matter, anyone?

   No, the lovecraftian message isn’t inherently racist, I don’t think so; but the role-playing game inspired by HPL’s works evidently falls into the “Repelling” category – like I said, the repelling of pesky invaders is a core tenet of fascism since the days of Sparta and even before that.

   As for Warhammer, well, I’m certainly not the first guy to say it. Haven’t seen many Latino or Asian or Black Space Wolves lately, and the constant struggle against “chaos” in the Old World left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, even though I played and even ran that game many times. Then again, games like Warhammer 40K are direct descendants of the kriegsspiels of old, and those were based on Napoleonian warfare – in other words, European troops, not Zulus or Aztecs.

   The main focus of D&D is to explore dungeons and gain treasure, while the main focus of Warhammer – any iteration of it – is to repel pesky invaders. This alone ought to tell you something fundamental. Warhammer 40K is a huge favorite among the 1d4chan shut-ins, and some of the stuff that is being discussed over there is just plain sad.

   And then there’s a second degree to this entire thing.

   A debate about diversity at the gaming table is currently going on in social media, and that is also quite reminiscent of the left vs right affair. Proponents of inclusiveness and gatekeepers don’t hang out in the same spaces, because gatekeeping means “Repel”, while inclusiveness and diversity means “Explore”. It seems convenient, but it’s all part of the same sweeping phenomenon.

   The world has undergone a paradigm shift. We now live in a “sharing” society, and those who refuse to share are viewed with growing contempt and suspicion. Of course, this is much less apparent with Monopoly, for instance, because you don’t usually play Monopoly with a bunch of strangers; thus, you’re not expected to “share” your Monopoly experience or stream it live – although someone is probably doing it.

   You’re much more likely to share your poker experience, because poker was originally a frontier game, and it was naturally meant to be played with a bunch of strangers.

   Role-playing games started out with a strong convention / tournament spin. Players used to roam from one DM to another with the same character. This style of organized play slowly but surely died out when the high concept, Silver Age RPGs appeared. In a game with lots of background info, players can’t go from one DM to the next, it’s impossible. Less sharing was inevitable. Complex homebrew campaigns are also bound to be fixed and confined. Low concept games are easily sharable.

   Just don’t pay any attention to the gatekeepers. There will be gatekeepers in every game and pastime. I have seen severe noob bashing in MMORPGs. I have heard of people being ridiculed by seasoned fishermen when they first took up fly fishing. I have heard stories of gatekeeping in the centuries-old game of Go. And have you ever tried playing Magic at your FLGS when you only recently started building up your deck?

   Mind you, inclusiveness and diversity can also go a bit too far. Someday, someone is going to roll up an Illithid-Dragonborn Undead Assassin/Paladin, and one poor Dungeon Master is just gonna quit. But that is in-game diversity. At the table itself, it can’t ever go too far.

   This rule of thumb (if I may even call it that) is far from being absolute. It is kind of yin and yang, to be honest: there’s always gonna be a bit of exploration within the repelling, and there’s always gonna be a bit of repelling within any type of exploration. Threat remains ever present. It’s the proximity that counts. If a danger is out there” somewhere, it’ll be called exploration; but if that danger is right here at our doorstep, then it’ll be called repelling. Cortés was exploring. The Aztecs were repelling. The terrible threat of extinction would never reach all the way to Spain itself.

   You have to explore the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands, but you have to repel the Hordes of Chaos Undivided that pour into Kislev.

   Choose your threat level.


Rogue One Big Letdown

   Friends and even work colleagues kept bugging me about Rogue One for over a year now. “It’s the best of them,” they all said. “If you had to see one of the new movies, it’s definitely Rogue One! You’ll love it!”

   So I watched it.

   First thing I noticed: the laws of physics are different with Disney. Two star destroyers of equal mass collide in orbit, and the first ship cuts through the second one like a red-hot spatula across a slice of thin-crust veggie pizza. That’s just plain impossible. If two objects of equal mass collide, both are supposed to sustain equal damage. Where the hell is this big heap of nonsense coming from?

   Then we have the destruction of Jedha. It’s a small town on top of a canyon, the size of seven or eight modern city blocks – the fallout of that destruction isn’t supposed to be that immense, and it cannot continue for, like, six entire minutes. It reminded me of that J.J. Abrams film with the enormous (literal) train wreck, and railcars that keep falling out of the sky for an entire two-minute scene. No kidding. There’s even some dialogue between the characters in the meanwhile – and then another train wagon comes crashing down behind them, boom. Physics 101, guys. Breathe.

   Second thing I noticed: the tower of Orthanc. What the heck is Darth Vader doing in friggin’ Isengard? The Disney people decided that Vader should have his own awesome villain’s lair and that it was long overdue, so they gave him a whole volcano planet with a sinister pointy black tower in the middle of nowhere. That’s ridiculous. Darth Vader ought to live on Coruscant near the Emperor’s palace, or even in that palace. Bormann was in Berlin, with Hitler. Pence lives in Washington, near Trump. Think about it. His own isolated planet with a vaguely Muslim name – if that’s not the most counterproductive thing ever, I don’t know what is.

   So, Darth Vader is Saruman, the good Maia (Jedi) who turned evil and allied himself with Sauron (Darth Sidious). Did they figure that out two years ago, or did they give the tower of Orthanc to Vader unconsciously? Either way, this is incredibly lame.

   Third thing: consistency. They think they have it right, but they sure don’t. In ‘77, it was an “intercepted transmission” Vader was looking for. Now it’s a hard drive that is passed from hand to hand down the length of a corridor, all the way to the hatch of Leia’s consular ship. That right there is one BIG inconsistency.

   Leia’s ship jumps into hyperspace; Vader’s star destroyer jumps into hyperspace; Leia’s ship exits hyperspace near Tatooine; Vader’s star destroyer also exits hyperspace near Tatooine – and captures Leia.

   Okay. Fleeing isn’t an option anymore.

   Strangely enough, that is the part that irked me the most. In the Star Wars universe, once your ship jumps into hyperspace – you’re safe. You are gone. No enemy will be able to track you, unless they know your ship’s exact course beforehand, which, in the case of Leia’s ship at the end of Rogue One, is absolutely impossible.

   But Darth Vader’s ship is still in pursuit during the opening sequence of A New Hope, right? How can that be? Why then didn’t Vader pursue the Millennium Falcon at the end of The Empire Strikes Back? This would have gotten him straight to the Alliance fleet!

   If we posit that Scarif is located along the Manda Merchant Road, then Leia’s ship disappears somewhere towards the Western Reaches. That general direction offers a lot of possibilities: Tatooine, Geonosis, Naboo, Dagobah, Bespin, Hoth, Endor, and scores of other systems. Where’s the Rebel base in all of that? It’s like trying to find a needle in a galactic haystack. Vader has to guess. Maybe that ship isn’t going back to the Rebel base right away. But why wouldn’t it? Maybe Alderaan? What’s more important and pressing than securing the stolen plans that just cost them so many lives? What’s the exact bearing of the Tantive IV (Leia’s consular ship), and how long do they intend to remain in hyperspace – because, of course, a difference of a few minutes may take you to the next system, and a difference of one degree may take you through a red giant star!

   How did Vader get it right? And don’t say, “The Force,” either. He couldn’t sense the Rebels on Hoth without wasting millions of Palpatine’s precious dollars on probes.

   Look at what Disney did here. They wanted to seamlessly link the end of Rogue One with the beginning of A New Hope, and they wanted this so bad, they broke something fundamentally canon in order to achieve it. Bravo, guys!

Other noteworthy failures

   Why is Galen Erso stepping up to prevent evil Imperial engineers from being executed? It makes no sense at all. This guy built a flaw in the Death Star’s reactor that will eventually kill eighty thousand stormtroopers and other Imperial personnel, but he draws the line at... six Imperial engineers?

   Make up your mind, Galen. Do you want the Imperials to perish, or not? You know you can’t win if you’re not sure, don’t you? You need to be sure. You need to be adamant. You need to be consistent.

   There’s also a huge problem with Grand Moff Tarkin. The man is just too much for me to digest, really. Who the fuck does he think he is? He orders the bombing of the Imperial laboratory on Eadu, and then uses the Death Star to completely destroy the main Imperial data center on Scarif. By my rough calculations, it amounts to 5 billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure. Man, I’d love to be a fly on the wall during his next audience with the Emperor...

PALPATINE: “Approach, Governor Tarkin. It has been quite a while, isn’t it?”

TARKIN: “It has, Your Highness.”

PALPATINE: “You appointed yourself as commander of my new battle station?”

TARKIN: “A temporary decision, Your Highness. Purely informal. Krennic was untrustworthy. Of course, you can now appoint anyone else you want to that post.”

PALPATINE: “I probably will, Governor. Maybe you are of a mind to govern the whole Empire, are you?”

TARKIN: “Of course not, Highness. I’d never think that––”

PALPATINE: “You also blew up our base on Scarif.”

TARKIN: “A necessary sacrifice, Your Highness. Rebel intruders got inside the Tower...”

PALPATINE: “How many Rebels? Five hundred?”

TARKIN: “Uh, more like five, Your Highness.”

PALPATINE: “You vaporized sixteen thousand officers, highly trained technicians, troopers and Imperial droids, just to get rid of five Rebels?”

TARKIN: “Uh...”

PALPATINE: “This facility was worth billions, Governor. Did you ever think about that?”

TARKIN: “You don’t understand, Highness––”

PALPATINE: “Thread lightly, Governor. What is it you think I don’t understand?”

TARKIN: “...”

PALPATINE: “Go back to the Death Star, there to await my orders. Do not blow anything up on a whim. It is a battle station, not your personal toy. And the cost of rebuilding Scarif and the crystal refineries on Eadu will, of course, be deducted from your pay.”

TARKIN: “...”

Final word

   I did it. I saw “the best of them all”. I honestly don’t feel the urgent need to watch the others. One movie a year, that’s a bit too much. As for The Last Jedi, from what I read on Twitter, critics loved it, but the fans, not so much. Why am I not surprised? Critics won’t bite the hand that feeds them.

   Let’s not forget one thing here. The new films are written by fanboys and fangirls: people like me, who saw Star Wars back in the late seventies when they were kids. Now, unlike me, they work at Disney and they’re on a high – blinded by their sheer love of the franchise. But a fan movie remains a fan movie, whatever the Intellectual Property documents might say. Same way a cover band remains a cover band, even if you happen to legally acquire the rights to the songs you play. “Dave’s Iron Maiden” will never be Iron Maiden, despite Dave’s very best efforts.



   I never understood the THAC0 debate.

   Everybody rolls a d20 when their character is attempting to hit an opponent – that won’t change. How you determine the difficulty of the roll is a technical aspect of the game that DMs should tackle while prepping their session. I never look at Armor Classes during a game: everything I need is on my cue cards. I fill one such card for each and every monster or NPC the player characters might possibly encounter during a game. Prepping is when I look at all the AC and To Hit matrixes. I check every possible combination.

   For example, gargoyles. Four / five Hit Dice monster. Gargoyles hit the Dwarf (AC -1) on a roll of 16; they hit the bard or the ranger (both AC 0) on a 15; hit the cleric (AC 2) on a 13; hit the thief (AC 3) on a 12; hit the magic-user (AC 7) on a 8. The PCs hit those AC 5 gargoyles on a roll of 13 for the level 4 fighters (Dwarf, bard, ranger), 13 also for the level 5 cleric, 14 for the level 5 thief, and 16 for the level 4 magic-user. All that info goes right on the cue card.

   Then you do that again for the grells and again for the wights and the carrion crawlers and the clay golem and the boss, whatever he / she is. When you run the actual game, you no longer need to bother with any Armor Class.

   THAC0 or no THAC0, it’s all the same. Each character rolls a d20. Each monster rolls a d20. It’s been like that since 1974. If you do the prep work and do it well, then there is no difference between First Edition and Fifth Edition. There was never a real debate. It’s just how you tell your players what number they need to hit.

   You’re welcome.

   If anyone wants to hit me, they need 15.


Citadel AD&D Beholder

   Let’s write a short post about the great 1985 Citadel Beholder, for no reason other than there’s not much stuff out there about it.

   This baby was sculpted by Nick Bibby, and looks exactly like the original beholder in the Monster Manual – not those newer, meaner beholders-on-steroids we see these days. The transparent base is long gone – I wasn’t quite careful in the late eighties and nineties – but I might give it a fire bat or black dragon base and get that beholder flying again.

    One of the ten eyestalks has broken off, and I honestly don’t remember if it broke while in storage, or if the clumsy 14-year-old me tried to bend one eyestalk and snapped it. But the missing eye is still cool. It gives this beholder a sort of “battle scar” feel, and when I eventually fling it on the table in my current First Edition AD&D game, the players will automatically wonder out loud, “Which of the deadly powers is gone? Please let it be the death ray! Please let it be the death ray!

   I have no intention of twisting or bending the 9 remaining stalks, because in my humble opinion, beholders look way cooler when they “stretch” all of their eyestalks, like in this awesome picture from the CM3 adventure Sabre River (see the archives for a full post about this killer module: 04/05/2015).

    Reminds me of a cobra’s neck hood, or the Australian frilled dragon with that collar around its head. Mean.

    From the same short-lived Citadel AD&D line, I’m also lucky enough to have kept the amazing troll and the gorgeous owlbear. To think that these little guys are now over 30 years old!


Fourscore Phantasmagores

   If you are running a game of Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Numenera, or basically any other fantasy role-playing game, you probably have to deal with at least one savvy player who knows the monster stats by heart.

   “Five Hit Dice, guys! That’s 40 HP max! We got this!

   The phones and tablets are yet another nuisance, these days. Players whip ‘em out immediately to check your monster’s Special Attacks or Magic Resistance. Annoying, right?

   Surprise them with new monsters!

   Rupert Bottenberg’s book, Fourscore Phantasmagores, offers eighty (that’s right, 80) new creatures for your campaign. Each of these monsters have its own explanatory text and gorgeous illustration, but no stat-block – so it can be “adapted” in virtually any game system you want, including your 100% homebrew campaign world.

   See the look on your players’ adorable little faces when you show them this picture, for example:

   “What the hell is that?” says the savvy player.

   “It is called a Blightseer,” you reply.

   Three of them whip out various devices and immediately google “Blightseer”. They come up with what we might call a big fat zip. O joy!

   Even if they find the link to Fourscore Phantasmagores and ChiZine Publications, that won’t provide them with any in-game advantage, since the creatures’ stats are your own.

   My take on the Blightseer, in classic First Edition AD&D format:

FREQUENCY: Very rare
SPECIAL ATTACKS: Ray of Enfeeblement
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Cannot be Surprised

   Note that I didn’t write the text that’s supposed to follow the stat-block here – because it’s written already, and very well written indeed. You open the book, choose a creature, read the text, and then come up with the appropriate stats, depending on which system you’re currently using. Recommended for experienced DMs and gamemasters.

   Here’s another monster adapted (again, by me) for Call of Cthulhu.

STR                        3d6
CON                       2d6 +6
SIZ                         1d6 +10
INT                        3d6
POW                      4d6 +20
DEX                       2d6 +3
Hit Points:             32
Move:                    8

Weapon                 Attk%    Damage
Touch                    40%        1d6 +1d4
Rending Light      60%        5d6

Armor: None, but normal weapons can not harm a Prismite.
Prismites also regenerate 2 points of damage per round until destroyed.

   Here’s the link – your players will hate you so much!


Let's Go To Hell

   In my game world, the spell fireball doesn’t exist anymore. It was banned two hundred years ago by a powerful college of magic-users and gold dragons called The Circle. Very few copies of the forbidden spell have been stored in six remote locations for future, wiser generations to retrieve. One of these six locations is a ruined city where a large Gate to Avernus opens every 25 years, and only remains open for 50 minutes. A copy of the spell is stored over there – in Hell.

   A group of rogue magic-users have decided to defy The Circle and their ban; they plan to go through the Gate, and bring back that infamous, banned spell.

   Pun or no pun, they are literally “going to hell”.

    At the beginning of the session, every player gets to choose if he’s gonna send his real character on that perilous expedition, or if he would rather play one of the fifth level NPCs provided. The risks of dying are high, but the rewards are huge: a big chunk of XP, in addition of the spell fireball for the magic-users!

   The decision to play “real characters” or NPCs doesn’t have to be a group decision: that’s the real beauty of it. The gate only allows for 10 people to go in and then come out 50 minutes later. The 10 NPCs – three magic-users, one cleric, one thief, and five fighters – are all set to go through that Gate when it opens. Players characters can choose to bump one NPC out of the lineup, and take its place. If the “real” thief or the “real” cleric decide not to go, they can play a barbarian and a druid – and not risk the lives of their characters. But the ranger, bard, and magic-users decide to send their actual characters, and there you have it: an unexpected combo of “real” characters and NPCs-turned-PCs-for-a-day.

   Basically, it would have been like a game of Frostgrave, with 7 players controlling 10 characters and aiming for one precise objective.

   But then, 6 of my 7 players decided to send their “real” characters to Hell. I was quite surprised, given that they were all too afraid to open any of the doors in one puny first-level dungeon, three years ago. Kudos, guys! Being crackbrained bold fuckers can go a long way – or you can remain trapped in Hell, or die.

   The party had many tricks up their sleeve: a Figurine of Wondrous Power, a Potion of Fire Control, a Potion of Heroism, plus several one-shot magic items – two “mass cure wounds” items, a holy sword, a rending wave (4d6 damage on 4 different targets), a Compelled Duel, and a talisman allowing its wearer to cast one Bigby’s crushing hand.

   In the very first room beyond the Gate, they squared off against two lemurs, two Legion Devils, and three fire bats. The magic-user cast his one and only lightning bolt there.

    The second room proved to be much more challenging: three Legion Devils and one Horned Devil – and that Horned Devil later gated in three additional Legion Devils – and some reinforcements came in from the previous room (two more devils, one of them wielding a frightening “lemur blade”). So, eight Legion Devils, plus one gargoyle guarding the fire tower where the forbidden spell is stored.

   The magic-user monster summoned three goblins, and one of those teeny-weeny goblins held its ground and lasted five whole rounds against a mighty Horned Devil and one Legion Devil. That nameless goblin became my favorite NPC of the game.

   The other NPCs went down one by one, having shielded the PCs from 150 HP of cumulative damage.

    The two “mass cure” had to be used in that room, along with the “rending wave” and the Figurine of Wondrous Power (a stone golem). The magic-user cast jump to get to the fire tower, climbed the ugly thing, and copied the priceless fireball spell. Then, the party scrambled to get out of there. Their golem carved up a few more pesty lemurs while carrying an unconscious barbarian NPC.

   They all headed back towards the volcano crater where the Gate is located, but monsters kept coming “like bats out of hell” (the expression is literal this time – and they are fire bats).

    The only exit was now blocked by a salamander boss, three magma elementals, and one more Legion Devil – number Eleven, for those of you who are keeping track. At one point, the fight turned into an intifada, with both magic-user and cleric picking up rocks to throw at the devil and elementals, since they were out of spells AND missile weapons.

   The magic-user drank his Potion of Fire Control in order to ward off the fire bats: an inventive and clever use for that potion. They also used Bigby’s crushing hand on the first elemental. They were fresh out of cure light wounds and all running pretty low on Hit Points.

    Hope was dwindling, so the Dwarf decided to drink up his Potion of Heroism despite being down to 4 HP. The potion made him gain 4 levels of experience and 44 HP. He was now an eighth level fighter with 48 HP and 3 attacks per 2 rounds! He used the Compelled Duel on the salamander – unblocking the Gate for his friends to get out as fast as they could. But the salamander still managed to cast heat metal twice, first on the ranger’s splintered mail, and then on the cleric’s magic armor...

   Ranger and cleric both successfully threw one unconscious NPC into the Gate, thus gaining the reputation of “stand-up guys”. The magic-user cast one last lightning bolt from his precious scroll; then he yelled “aligato, sayonara” and jumped into the Gate. The ranger fired his last two arrows +2 and also threw himself into the Gate. The thief tried to throw the last remaining unconscious NPC into the Gate but missed his roll and that NPC fell into lava. Six fire bats then swarmed the thief, and he dropped to -2 HP. And sadly, there was nobody left to rescue him.

   Despite the Potion of Heroism, Gorik the Dwarf died battling the salamander, and the last man standing (the cleric) had to jump into the Gate right away – abandoning Kalarion the thief, because Kalarion was on the opposite side of the crater, and had fallen right on the one evil rune that prevented his friend to reach him. (Plus, that salamander was now making its way back towards the cleric...)

   Nevertheless, that killer mission is a success. They now possess the spell fireball and its dreaded “ouch” factor. But it cost the party their awesome fifth level thief and their valiant fourth (almost fifth) level fighter. Yes, we will have two new first level characters in the mix, next time.

   Hell, that was some grandiose / Homeric D&D, wasn’t it?


In Search of the Perfect Dungeon

   Your seven players are now fourth or fifth level. Wandering monsters won’t cut it anymore: they’re a waste of time, since they don’t stand a chance in hell. One carrion crawler in a corridor is just a nuisance. Avoid it. I have seen my players generate 320 points of damage in one fight scene.

   When you sit down to design the next big adventure, it’s a balancing act: on one hand, the intricacies of role-play and worldbuilding; on the other hand, the simple, straightforward mayhem of big combat scenes with lots of miniatures. To this end, I have identified 6 key elements I think will help build (almost) perfect dungeons. You need to look at

 • PC Motivation
 • Visual Aid
 • Time Limit
 • Declustering
 • Chokepoints
 • Branch Off Options

PC Motivation

   “Ten volunteer NPC heroes are already set to embark on that dangerous mission. Your party has acquired quite a bit of local renown by now – so you guys can choose to bump some of the NPCs out of this adventure lineup and take their place. But you don’t have to. These volunteer heroes are ready, and they’re gonna get all the juicy XP...

   There, PC motivation solved.

   Let them know that there is always someone else in line for any given adventure. This is a D&D world, after all. There’s always a young druid and two wandering paladins around the corner.

Visual Aid

   When you provide the players with a map of the dungeon – even an outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete map – it gives them a general idea of how much terrain they’ve yet to cover. They can see the remaining corridors and rooms. Very efficient, especially for one-off adventures.

Time Limit

   “This Gate opens once every 25 years, only stays open for 50 minutes, and can only allow 10 people to get in – or out.

   The in-game time limit prevents too much retreat and recharge; spellcasters may be able to huddle down in some corner and replenish ONE first level spell, but that’s it. Use up your scrolls, guys, and use up the charges in your magic items. (That’s the reason your DM gives them to you in the first place.)


   Back in the early eighties, players were reckless. Most of them, anyway. Nowadays it’s all groupthink and elaborate min-maxed strategies – a blatant legacy of the video games and various MMORPGs. Players move in tight knots with the spellcasters in the center, and the thieves unable to do their thing (finding traps, listening to doors, hearing noises, etc).

    Narrow walkways and teleport traps are the two best tricks to deconstruct that solid clump of miniatures on the table. Monsters appearing from above (or through the walls) are also an excellent method – lava children, blink dogs, wraiths, xorns, or a good old lurker above.


   Scenes are of the utmost importance. Arcs, not that much (especially if you don’t play often). I now focus all my energy on scenes – i.e. amazing rooms or locales in which messy / complicated clashes occur. Dungeon Chokepoints, if you will. That is the fundamental part, and that’s what players will remember.

    This room is a fitting example: a cul-de-sac teleport fronted with a pit, three concealed doors high up on the right wall, and two separate landings on the opposite side. The PCs teleport in and find themselves bottled up. There are three ways out of there. One, through the concealed doors. Two, across the pit, right side. Three, across the pit, left side – but there’s a gnoll archer waiting over there, and of course he starts firing arrows immediately.

   Those concealed doors slide open, and kobolds begin throwing spears down onto the party. As for the pit itself, it is covered with huge iron bars upon which it is possible for a character to walk. A giant scorpion dwell inside that pit. Too large to slip through the bars, but its pincers and stinger can still strike at any PC attempting to cross over to the other side...

   There’s no shortage of potential action in there. The party cannot fall back: that teleport only works one way. They also have to decide on a course of action quickly, because they don’t have any cover while the damn gnoll is firing away – and he’s got cover, plus a large supply of arrows. So it’s either climb that wall under raining spears, or walk across those iron bars and risk being stung / shot with an arrow.

   Thieves or bards may decide to climb, and tackle those kobolds. Magic-users will fire magic missiles at the gnoll and maybe spider climb on the ceiling, bypassing the pit. Fighters and clerics will have no choice but to cross the pit on foot, weapons drawn.

   The only way out is through. Party needs a little push? So push. Trust me – it’s for their own good. Players don’t know better, even if some of them are also DMs who run their own games. When you sit down and put on that Player hat, you forget things.

   If you give them a retreat option, they’ll use it.

    The question is: are you willing to let them chop your combat scene into three smaller combat scenes? If not, then why bother with the monsters chasing the party throughout an entire dungeon level – how many different dungeon floors will you have to whip out then? Just go one step further and keep the PCs trapped in the one room. They will thank you later: memorable combats don’t have two or three time-outs. Unless what you want is precisely that: a full-tilt, arduous running battle like the Chain of Dogs, but within a dungeon environment.

Branch Off Options

   Be up front about the stuff you’ve prepared. Your players are grown-ups, right? Just tell them, “This is what I have with me today. It’s a portal to Avernus, and a lemur-infested volcano fortress. I made all the props, sculpted them, and painted them, plus the necessary miniatures. You don’t want to go? Alright. I can improvise a game in the city or out in the forest, but we’ll have no props and almost no minis. There are no lemurs and Legion Devils in the forest.”

   Nobody wants an absolute railroad. Keep some lateral options open. Sub-levels. Opposite corridors. Even if you provided the party with an accurate map of what the previous expedition saw twenty-five years ago in that very same dungeon, I’m sure there are corridors they haven’t explored – or maybe some new dungeon developments were added sometime during the course of the past 25 years? Allow them to go off-script if they really want to.


   The perfect dungeon is a mix of what’s fun for the players (optimizing / gaining powers) and what’s fun for the DM (utter, absolute mayhem). Give your players some room to optimize, especially if they’re a bunch of project managers / web architects / university teachers – but not too much room. The best role-playing memory is never a perfectly optimized adventure, but rather, a time when everything went to hell as your cleric didn’t save against Polymorph and was turned into a swarm of bees and the fighter drank his Potion of Heroism and then rolled three consecutive 20s but died 7 rounds later because he had lost way more than his regular HP and also the thief tried to backstab an otyugh and the magic-user simply fled the scene and the others called him a damn wimp for months!

   Twenty-five years, and I still remember that.