RPGaDay2020 Day 25: Lever – do you dare pull it?

The RPGaDay2020 prompts in a map by dunroaminpress

Yesterday in RPGaDay2020 I discussed humour at the table.

Today the prompt is Lever.

When I started playing D&D, the emphasis was very much on dungeons, which had all sorts of mechanisms and features to keep the players on their toes. It seemed that a lever was very seldom just a lever that operated something obvious. I think the first “lever” I came across was actually a disguised sword blade with poison which would hurt anyone who tried to pull it. And levers were never labelled – the adventurers always had to guess which one to try, usually with dire results if they picked the wrong one.

Despite this, the players still willingly said “oh, there’s a lever. Well, I guess I pull it.” And then wince while they waited to hear what dreadful result it had.

I supposed this is partly because dungeons were also designed so that you had to pull the (right) lever to progress. Back in those days there was definitely an adversarial approach to DMing (and it was dungeon-mastering rather than games-mastering), certainly in my experience, so I suppose it fitted with that. Our aim was to try to make it as hard as possible for the characters to succeed – it was us (the DMs) against them (the characters). The characters were trying to break in and make off with as much as possible, preferably without getting killed while the DM was trying to block them.

That was a style of play. And maybe it wasn’t like that at every table, but that was my (teenage) experience. Given that, we were always looking for ways to trick the characters into taking damage and going the wrong way.

Fast forward thirty years, and that is much less the approach. The emphasis is on the gamesmaster being an impartial arbiter who plays the world to the best of their ability, but doesn’t actively try to thwart the characters at every touch and turn. It’s there in the introduction to the DMG:

…your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more! If you’re lucky, the events of your campaign will echo in the memories of your players long after the final game session is concluded.

Dungeon Masters Guide p4 Introduction

So where does that leave the lever of the prompt? How do we make it fair rather than always an attempt to outwit them and cause their downfall?

The same question can be asked of any trap or mechanism – if it’s unfair to have a lever which unexpectedly drops them into a pit of sharpened stakes, it’s equally unfair to arbitrarily have a hail of poison darts shoot out of the wall, or a large lump of stone drop on them and squash them flat, or…

Unfair, that is, unless there’s some foreshadowing, some warning they get, some way to detect and disable the trap.

The Thief from the Expert set

Back in the day, this was the thieves’ speciality – they had special abilities to Find and Remove Traps. Except they really weren’t very special at low levels – with a 10% chance of Finding a trap and then a 10% chance of removing it having found it, a 1st level thief really wasn’t very good at it, and they were only allowed one chance per trap. Even by 5th level they only had a 30% chance. It’s not until they get to 8th level that they have a better than even chance of success.

So Thieves would be going along checking for traps (and elves would be going along checking for secret doors), taking one turn (turn = non-combat = 10 mins) per 10′ section…can you say SLOW?

Realistically, there would be some sort of clue – maybe a slight difference in the cracks in the floor around the trap door, or holes in the wall where the poison darts come out, a hollow sound when knocking the floorstone with a pole – which the characters could pick up on. That’s where the current approach in 5e is much fairer – a Perception check will probably have around a 50% chance for a low-level character who isn’t proficient, probably 65%+ if they are (since if they’ve taken it as an ability they probably have Wisdom above 10). And even if they don’t actively check, they will still have their Passive Perception…which ironically might work out better than a roll, since it’s effectively a roll of 10…

I would also feel it incumbent on me as GM to at least mention features which might suggest to the players that there might be traps, so that if they do trigger something it doesn’t come as a complete surprise but more an “oh yes, I should have been expecting that.”

There would also probably be a moment when the characters have time to realise they’ve triggered something and decide to react – the click as they step on a pressure plate, a creak from the blade as it starts to sweep out. Maybe not enough information to know exactly what the trap is, but at least enough for them to know something is going to happen and react in some way. Then you can decide whether their reaction will make a difference, and if so how – a Strength(Athletics) check to jump forward over the pit, a Dexterity(Acrobatics) check to dodge the swinging blade, or maybe at least take half damage.

If I’ve foreshadowed the traps and given them a moment of warning to react, it then feels like it’s the player’s luck which determines the outcome for the character rather than GM fiat. Which may still end up with a dead or damaged character, but clear it’s the world and their actions which have led to it.

Come back tomorrow for Day 26, and we’ll look at Strange.

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