D&D 5E Wandering Monsters 10/30/2013: Trick or Treat?


James wanders briefly away from the topic of monsters to tackle a timely topic for this week: tricks. Or are they treats? Find out more about the art of the Dungeon Master’s trade in this week’s Wandering Monsters.


I like this article, it touches on a subject that been talked about but never explained in enough details, I dislike the terminology of exploration encounter, it might be right for some situations but I fear that it might lead to encounter format for every little thing in the game and I'm not sure I like the 4e encounter format...

I disagree with James about the part involving confounding the players and getting them lost, whats the point of having a dungeon if you can't get lost in it? As I see it, while exploring a dungeon, the dungeon itself is one of the enemies the players need to beat and all the exploration encounters James talked about are part of that.


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I thought this was a good column. I think his discussion of "exploration" is pretty solid (and I think he's being disningenuous when he presents his realisation of the scope of exploration as a new discovery! - but it makes for good patter).

I'm personally not very interested in exploration as an element of play, but there's no denying it has a long history in the game. The next stage of discussion is looking at different dimensions of exploration and how they relate to other aspects and techniques of play. For instance, exploration of dungeon geography - all the mapping tricks, for instance - can involve player-driven attempts to unravel the GM's puzzle. Whereas mysteries to do with more expansive aspects of backstory tend to turn to a much greater extent on the GM dribbling out clues like breadcrumbs, which can have something of a railroading effect on play.

Li Shenron

As a player, I am a huge fan of exploration! To the point that I could play a game of D&D with no story/interaction and no combat, but not without exploration.*

As a DM, providing interesting exploration challenges and handling them with proper rules that both reward player's skills and character's skills has always been difficult for me. A combat encounter is easier to design for me...

*I think the reason to my fondness of exploration is that I can totally relate to that on a personal level. When we were children/early teenagers, we were exploring odd/forbidden places all the time: I remember sneaking into cellars, school's storage rooms and forbidden quarters, church's inner sanctums, abandoned factories, villa's private parks, golf club's territories, train depots, closed supermarkets... damn we were insane Rogues! :D But if we ever encountered someone, or a guard dog, we would run like hell! We would totally crap out pants at the possibility of physical confrontation.
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Without tricks, S1 would have been a single encounter.

I would equate it with the same reason that (some) people like books of riddles, logic puzzles and rubik's cubes. Exploring the unknown is fun, and it's dramatic when that exploration could turn out to be dangerous (or beneficial). Not just the vagaries of stepping on a pressure plate and triggering a pit trap or accidentally causing the ceiling to collapse. Tricks often result from deliberate manipulation. Pulling the gem-encrusted stone from the forehead of the steel skull. Drinking the waters of the blood-red fountain. Agreeing to answer the sphinx's riddle to cross the swaying rope bridge and so on.

There is however, one trick left out of the discussion in the article - trick monsters. Stuff like rust monsters or wolves-in-sheep's clothing. Monsters 4E initially tried to tell us were "no fun" but later conceded to add back to the game - at least partially. Things you can't always - or may not want to - defeat via combat, but seek another way overcoming by wit or guile.


Interesting. When I hear "exploration", I understand "seeing" things. Not "solving" them. What the article describes is really a thing I do not engage in, even though I would have radically agreed, if I were asked: "Do you consider exploration a central part of gaming?"


Steeliest of the dragons
I don’t want to talk about monsters this week.
I'm sure.

Instead, I want to muse a bit on what might be a lost art of the Dungeon Master’s trade—
Hmm. And whose fault would that be?

or might just be something we all do and don’t talk about any more, at least not in the same terms. I’m talking about tricks.
That's an interesting thought. I have no idea though. But, truthfully, it isn't the kind f thing that I talk about. It is rather assumed to exist.

I came to this realization a while ago ...

He CAN be taught! :D

What is exploration, really? Well, it’s more than just the rules that govern how you get from one place to another. It’s more than the rules for listening at doors and breaking them down.
It includes those mundane mechanics of moving around in the D&D world, but more importantly, it describes the wonder-filled activity of uncovering the secrets of an ancient or mysterious environment, whether it’s an ancient dungeon, dusty ruins, or a savage wilderness. Exploration includes the following kinds of activities:


You might sometimes make ability checks during exploration: -snip- Experiment, ask questions, keep notes, and pay attention, and eventually the dungeon’s mysteries will be revealed to you!

[h=3]Tricks of the Trade[/h] I spent a lot of time looking at rules and adventures from the early days of D&D and thinking about how the game handled exploration back then. Surprisingly, I found that the rules never said much about it—it was an activity that was always assumed but rarely rose to the forefront of discussion.

And this was..."surprising[ly]" for you? ...we're doomed.

A lot of what appears in the bullet list above actually came from looking at the early descriptions of “tricks” (as opposed to traps). Appendix H of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide...
-snippety snip snip-
What’s interesting to me there is the assumption that tricks are an essential element of every DM’s arsenal, and indeed, looking at the attributes in the appendix and the examples that follow, these are the kinds of things that make exploration an interesting and entertaining part of the D&D game experience:
-snip the gargoyle/nymph example statue-

And this is interesting to you...because...?

Clues, riddles, and save-or-die traps are all essential elements of the early game, all wrapped up in one neat package.

Funny that. Guess ya shoulda paid more attention to those in your passed editions...but then, guess we'd have nothing to talk about this week.

[h=3]Three Pillars[/h] So I think we’re right to be talking about three pillars of the game, but it might be more helpful to think about it in terms of three types of encounters: combat encounters (the kind where you beat up monsters), interaction encounters (the kind where you talk to people), and exploration encounters (the kind where you deal with tricks and sometimes traps).
STOP! Hang on...Right there. Be a dear and take your none-too-subtle attempt to infiltrate 5e with some of your vaunted 4e terminology, thanks. Expressly "encounter-based" design has been, I'd say, irrevocably proven to be a detrimental to the D&D [sales and] brand.

The overall exploration rules—how you move from place to place—that’s the glue that holds encounters together. It’s the room the pillars are in.

Didn't you just say at the start of this [your startling revelation!] that exploration is more than how you move from place to place?

Exploration encounters provide a much richer space for DM creativity and allow the players to find challenge—and fun.


The weird thing is that the game stops talking about “tricks” (using that word) after 1st Edition AD&D. We keep stocking our dungeon with this kind of obstacle and challenge, but by taking away the language we used to use to talk about them, we’ve made them an implicit part of the game and hidden them from newer DMs.

I will assert that 2nd edition must have dealt with them as well, without apparently "using that word" <rolls eyes>. At no point do I recall people saying "Oh thank gods! We don't have to bother with puzzles anymore!"...until much more recently.

Beyond that, guess some folks shoulda left well enough alone.

EDIT: I suppose the utterly arbitrary pananggalan is just an attempt to feel Halloweeny? Cute [debatable]...but completely pointless and inappropriate to the column.
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D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
Exploration is an exciting part of adventuring and they allow me to face the challenge and puzzles that really make me think as a player. I am also a master trickter as a DM and i wield an impressive array of tricks and love those designed to foil player mapping or other dungeon dressing and hidden things that mislead player characters!
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Aye, file this one under "been doing that for years". Still, it's good that WotC are aware of it, and hopefully going to act on it.

A lot of what he talks about, though, isn't really a matter of rules (which is probably why the rules have long remained silent on it), but rather of adventure design. If nothing else, because there is a huge scope for different tricks, and because the DM will want each trick to be (nearly) unique, there's only so much the DMG can actually do to help - it can give examples, but good adventures can probably give better examples more efficiently.

One more thing: Just as D&D now seems to have three pillars (combat, interaction, exploration), so too do I feel there should (ideally) be three 'layers' of tricks in an adventure:

- Those tricks that must be solved to complete the adventure. These should generally be few in number, and relatively simple. And, in particular, the adventure should always consider: what happens if the PCs fail to 'solve' this?

- A set of tricks that aren't required, but which open up desirable outcomes. For example, a puzzle that opens up a treasure room - if the PCs solve the puzzle then great, they get the treasure; but if they don't, then it's no big deal, especially if there are several such tricks. These should be used liberally, can be of wildly varying levels of difficulty. The only concerns should be to make sure that the game still works if the PCs solve all such puzzles and if the PCs solve none of them.

- The third set of tricks that are just there. In the article, the mystery of "why did the lost city fall" is a good example of this - the answer is there if the players want to search for it, but if they don't, or they don't find the answer then it's no big deal. And if they do solve the puzzle then there's no particular consequence either - they just get the warm glow of having discovered something. There should probably only be one or two such tricks in an adventure, but they can be as fiendishly complex as you like.

And that then allows the same adventure to suit different adventuring tastes - those players who just want to "complete the quest" can do so and move on. Those who want to spend a bit more time to thoroughly loot the place can do so, and for investing more into the adventure they get more out. And then those players who love finding "easter eggs" get their wish too - the eggs are there to be found, but only if they're really dedicated.


First Post
This is a nice change of pace from the normal Wandering Monsters article... mostly because it had nothing to do with monsters.

It did a good job of laying out what they mean by "exploration encounters." Which I'd honestly figured was a euphemism for "whatever system we come up with to replace skill challenges."

For that reason, I wish we had this article a long time ago. But better late than never :)


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