Home > Uncategorized > Chris Crawford quote on the trap-laden dungeon

Chris Crawford quote on the trap-laden dungeon

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Well, actually it’s about user interfaces, which are really the same thing when you think about it.

…one of the stupidest and most avoidable blunders in classic user interface design: darkness paralysis. Imagine it’s four in the morning and the dog is whining in the garage. You stumble out of bed and creep through the house, groping your way toward the door. You’re too sleepy to remember to turn on the light. The path you must take is direct and unobstructed, yet you move slowly and carefully, imagining at every moment a toe-stubbing chair or nose-crunching wall to be just in front of you. The absence of light dramatically changes a simple and obvious task into one that is difficult, confusing, and intimidating. Always keep this feeling in your mind, for although users operate the same program that designers create, the designers see the program in the light of complete knowledge, and the users navigate in total darkness. The designer cannot understand the user’s confusion; having laid out the room, examined it from a thousand different angles, gone over every square inch with a magnifying glass, the designer can walk across it with his eyes closed. He simply cannoy understand the user’s confusion.

Originally from Crawford’s The Art of User Interface Design. Via muffinlabs.

I don’t like 10′ poles – they’re unwieldy, ridiculous, combat-inappropriate and unheroic. But if pressure pads and spiked pits are the order of the game then they’re indispensable (only use a pike, please). So it’s really truer to say I don’t like a style of DMing that leads to 10′ poles – I just don’t want to play that darkness-paralyzed game – at least not every time.

The thing is, once you’ve fallen into that pit, there’s really no way to get the players to come back out of it, to pay attention to what the NPC is saying if they suspect she’s really just an illusory doppelganger lichwight trying to get them to enter the room so she can blast them, or to touch the engravings on the ceiling or drink from the fountain. Here’s the thing: it’s cool when Indy uses the tree branch to spring the poison dart because he’s in a small environment where you know there are special dangers. He doesn’t have to check for poison darts in the forest, Cairo or the sub pen. Because those places have different kinds of dangers. He knows it, we know it. But the megadungeon… isn’t it just exhausting, and kinda boring, to be waiting for the next scything head-chopper?

I’m wondering what to do about that. I’m hoping Talysman will talk about it. In the past I’ve gone and played other games, because for me D&D always was contaminated with pole-pushing thinking – CoC has its known dangers (you’re not going in the basement, right?), but the environment itself won’t always be creeping up on you – if it does, that’s because you’re making progress.

I’m thinking about the heist campaign, and how it runs on foreknowledge. Maybe I should give the players the journal of a previous party, that tells them about a set of traps but not where those are, so they know to watch out for particular bits of background. Or even some looted trap designs, so they recognise some features when they come up. Most of all, I’m leaning toward non-lethal “capture” traps – once a trap has been sprung the environment becomes a problem to be solved. Before it’s sprung, the nature of the problem is undeclared, so it’s impossible to face it as a challenge.

Finally, I just found this post Babbling Bane wrote back in March in response to something else I’d written. Sorry, WordPress doesn’t necessarily pingback Blogger citations (and probably vice-versa?). makes me wonder if I should tell people when I’m linking to them…

  1. November 24, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    “The fear of “death”, its risk each time, is one of the most stimulating parts of the game. It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistent with a reasonable chance for survival (remembering that the monster population already threatens this survival). For example, there is no question that a player’s character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep or
    into a shallow pit filled with poisoned spikes, and this is quite undesirable in most instances.” – Gary Gygax, Underground & WIlderness Adventures, “Tricks and Traps” section.

    The list of examples that follows the above quote is exclusively devoted to things that force the players to descend deeper into the dungeon (elevator rooms, chutes, etc), or to things that will get them lost, or to things that will hinder their ability to flee from monsters. The only mention of a potentially lethal trap is the “this is undesirable” bit quoted above.

    Reading between the lines, traps were originally about forcing the players to waste time so that they would suffer additional wandering monster checks, and “tricks” were primarily about causing the PCs to end up in a more dangerous area of the dungeon, or confound their attempts at mapping. They were not meant to be a serious threat of death or injury from the traps themselves, which is why Gygax made them have only a 2-in-6 chance of springing and a 2-in-6 chance of causing injury once sprung.

    The bits in Holmes Basic about traps (in the “DMing as a fine art” section) basically echo the same sentiment: traps are supposed to be an inconvenience and a time waster, not killers of unwary PCs. The threat of death in the dungeon is supposed to come primarily from monsters, not traps.

    Sadly all this changed over time, primarily due, I guess, to a desire to “give the thief something to do.”

    • The Bane
      November 24, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      I kind of see your point, but having seen and responding to Richard’s response to my blog post, I have “motivation” on my mind. If there is a “2-in-6 chance of causing injury once sprung”, then there is that fear of ‘death’. That “… stimulating part(s) of the game” is great for the Player, but seems counter productive for the Characters and their motivation.

      I guess I subscribe to traps, as you describe them, as role-play encounters. Where we diverge is their purpose, and you might be on the same line as the designers, I just don’t see them as a delaying action to wandering monsters or drops to harder levels. Those both equate to damage, or potential damage, to me. If that’s the case, drop the 2-in-6 chance of causing damage, do the damage directly, and move on.

      The same goes for the original quote, walking through that darken room is great fun to watch someone do, but to actually do it, you (they/the character) need a motivation. Do you run to the garage and navigate the perils, when you find the light blown out, for the dog whimpering in his kennel? Maybe, probably not. Do you do it when your five year old went out there to get a toy and the bulb pops and they are deathly afraid of the dark. Surely. You (the character) risk the bumped toe, bruised calf, or broken nose to ‘save’ your child.

      I guess it boils down to why you play, for me. You can play to watch this poor bumbling idiot plow through the garage out of amusement, the “World’s Funniest Home Video” mentality, or you can do it, like the film’s provider for the motivation of the $50,000. SHOW ME THE MONEY BABY!

      ((Sorry, lack of coffee makes me ramble of topic))

      The Bane

  2. November 24, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Nice quote. The idea about the trap journal reminds me of Beedo’s The Library of de la Torre:


    It’s another way to deal with communicating information to players so that they can make informed decisions and avoid the “challenge scaling” problem where players assume that all obstacles are “fair” and beatable.

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