Friday, May 13, 2011

Holmes on Traps

Given the relative comfort (and even enthusiasm) for traps that have a save or die! mentality around the OSR, I was rather taken aback by the following advice given by Holmes to the would-be Dungeon Master:

Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety but those which a character might avoid or overcome with some quick thinking and a little luck. Falling into a relatively shallow pit would do damage only on a roll of 5 or 6 (1-6 hit points at most) but will delay the party while they get the trapped character out.
Coupled with the rule that traps only go off on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 when characters go by/over them, Holmes' vision of traps reminds me of Monty Python's send-up of the Spanish Inquisition.

This is only reinforced by his suggestions for traps other than the fall-into-the-pit variety:

Hidden rooms, movable walls, teleportation devices, illusion rooms, dead ends, etc., make interesting variations.

Having spent some time meditating on this, I have arrived at another Aha! moment. This advice about traps says less about Holmes' philosophy on save or die! than it does about his vision of what a dungeon looks like. The key phrase in his advice is "delay the party."

All of this advice is in context of stocking dungeons. Holmes very specifically says, "Many rooms should be empty." Indeed, he follows his own advice in the sample dungeon where 8 of the 22 rooms are keyed as "E" for empty. Only 9 of the 22 have monster encounters. Holmes suggests that a few special items be placed first, followed by a random assignment of monsters and treasures where a 1-2 on a d6 indicates a monster. If one assumes that the group of pirates and the 4th level magic user are the "few items" placed by Holmes in his dungeon, that gives a ratio of 7 encounters to 20 rooms — approximately 2 in 6. This suggests that a proper dungeon is basically divided equally into three types of rooms:
  • Those with monster encounters.
  • Those that have something of interest, but no monsters.
  • Those that are empty.
Thus, if such a large segment of the dungeon is monster-less and even empty, why would the primary function of a trap be to "delay the party?"

I believe the answer lies in the way Holmes presents wandering monsters. Holmes states that:

The number of wandering monsters appearing should be roughly equal to the strength of the party encountering them.

This strength is determined by the number of HD the monster has when compared to the level of the party or the level of the dungeon. Thus an average encounter of 1 HD creatures would have around 2-6 individuals. If encountered on the third level of a dungeon or by a third level party, this number should be tripled.

In other words, the main danger of dungeon exploration is not traps, or "boss" encounters but wandering monsters! Thus, traps are not meant to be dangerous in and of themselves, but rather in slowing down the party so that there are more chances of the Dungeon Master rolling a '6' during a wandering monster check.

This suggests that the dungeon is an ever-changing wilderness that can never be tamed. When one asks the very reasonable question "where do these monsters come from?" my own reading of Holmes implies that the answer is the dungeon itself.

Thus, the Holmesian dungeon is not really akin to a lair, where monsters live. Rather, it seems to be a character unto itself — constantly adjusting in order to challenge the adventuring parties that dare to explore its secrets.


Erin Smale said...

Coupled with the rule that traps only go off on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 when characters go by/over them...

Holmes is full of surprises--I don't recall this in any subsequent version.

I like the concept, but could see certain encounters going off too easy if the trap doesn't work. Imagine the beginning sequence in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" if the GM kept rolling 3's or higher...

DHBoggs said...

Interesting post. Although I don't recall the "go off on 1 or two" rule, the rest of it (frequency of empty rooms, commonality and strength of wandering monsters, and preponderance of delaying and confusing traps over damaging ones) is straight cut and paste out of OD&D, and much the same can be found in the FFC.

While you might be right about Holmes, in gonzo fashion, imagining spontaneous monster generation, Arneson and Gygax were proponents of verissimilitude (aka "naturalism") and expected monsters to have a history as a part of the ecology.

FrDave said...

...especially if I'm rolling my special initiative die that only has 3's...

No doubt about Gygax and Anderson (and I, myself, tend to adhere to their naturalism in my own games); however, I am in the midst of going back to a time in the early 80s when the only D&D I owned was Holmes & Cook. What would my homebrew look like? Following the logic on traps, it looks like my game is going to err on the side of gonzo rather than the naturalism I am normally want to do (primarily because I have been unduly influenced for years by both Gygax and Anderson). Personally, I find that fascinating.

Zenopus Archives said...

Hi. Great series, I started reading after Grognardia posted the link.

Regarding your post, many of the ideas in this section of the Holmes rulebook come straight out of OD&D Book 3, and thus are from Gygax/Arneson rather than Holmes, though he made the sensible editorial decision to include them in Basic. That traps should be non-lethal rather than lethal is on page 6, section "Trick and Traps", which also contains a list that Holmes summarized as the "hidden rooms, etc..." This is followed by a section on distribution of monsters that gives the 1-2 out of 6 and notes there should be "far more uninhabited space on a level than space occupied by monsters". The idea of traps being sprung on only 1 or 2 out of 6 is from page 9. The part about number of wandering monsters is from page 11, though it does not clearly say that the number should be equal to the party. As you can see, this part of the Holmes Basic rulebook is essentially a condensation of the first part of OD&D Book 3. Some stuff is purely Holmes, like the mention of Cthulhu, the new Example of Play, and the new Sample Dungeon.

[Edit: I didn't read the previous comments before posting - so I see DHBoggs already brought up some of these points & you responded to them].

Alexey said...

On the naturalism vs. gonzo: I think the key here is the idea of the dungeon as a fairly large, mostly unexplored expanse of corridors/rooms. It would certainly be gonzo if a small, 5-room underground complex continued to produce groups of 5-15 evil humanoids. But a large scale, multi-level dungeon doing the same? Who's to say that there's not a "naturalistic" explanation for those creatures continuing to show up (secret doors in deep levels, forgotten connections to other chambers, etc.) that the PCs don't know or understand. Perhaps that's one of the main mysteries the party would be investigating.

I think one of the aspects of DMing I enjoy most is leaving some of those mysteries unknown even to myself. Introduce weird stuff that might be explained later if the party investigates--but upon introduction I don't even know why it's there/where it came from. "Mysteries only explained by deep delving."

Incidentally, and at the risk of stating something obvious to all the well-versed D&D vets here, Moldvay continues to use the same room contents proportions on his dungeon stocking table.

Great post, Fr. Dave.

FrDave said...

Thanks for the kind words and for the bibliographic info!

Thanks for the kind words.

On having a naturalistic dungeon, I would normally agree and I myself play that way (having been influenced by Gygax and Arneson through the decades); however, this series is a thought experiment based solely on the info available in Holmes & Cook.

Note the sample dungeon given by Holmes. It only has 22 rooms and no indication of levels beneath (other than an open invitation to do so if the would-be DM wants to). This is no sprawling dungeon of hundreds of rooms where wandering monsters can happen naturally.

Though Skull Mountain does suggest that such huge sprawling dungeons do exist, the fact that the sample dungeon is so small and still has wandering monsters as its primary danger for characters strongly suggests that dungeons of all shapes and sizes are something other than natural.

Jim said...

Great post. Very interesting. I don't think the wandering monsters *must* spawn out of nothing. After all, the characters entered the dungeon looking for stuff, couldn't monsters do the same? If the wandering monsters are of a similar type to the other encounters, wandering monsters are simply random Schrödinger instances of the existing inhabitants. :)