Confessions of an OSR DM

05 Feb

“Can you see anything?”

-Lord Carnarvon

One of the things I love best about old school gaming is the sense of exploration.

From dungeon crawls to hex crawls, the compulsion to see what’s beyond the next door or over the next hill is what drives me to play the game.  It’s often what causes me to roll up another character, but that’s neither here nor there.

As a dungeon master a great deal of the fun is in watching my players discover the things I’ve created.  It’s great to see them reach the final room of my dungeon, or overcome the trap I’ve laid for them, or die horribly as they release the unspeakable monster from its prison.  In keeping with the old school mentality my players know that I will revel in their victories as well as their demise and that I let the dice lay without fudging.  The hardest won victories are the sweetest.

“Yes, wonderful things!”

-Howard Carter

I love secrets.

Secret doors, secret panels, hidden treasures are the best.  Lost and forgotten rooms hidden behind sliding walls whose architects are long dead.  There is a sense of wonder when we discover that there is more to our world than we realized, even if it’s just a hidden box under the floor boards.  In a sense the allure of the secret room is a distillation of the allure of dungeon delving.

And yet…

The true allure of the secret chamber is not in its existence, it’s in its discovery.  Sharing my players’ reactions to finding my hidden rooms is what I enjoy and it pains me when they miss out because the dice are not kind.  I have been more tempted to fudge a situation to reveal a secret room than to save a character’s life.

I want my players to find things.

Nothing should be put into an adventure that you don’t want your players to find.  There is an adventure for Call of Cthulhu that includes a copy of the Necronomicon in it’s original Arabic translation, called Al Azif.  The book is hidden in a secret compartment and the adventure text goes to great lengths about how hard it should be to find.  It instructs the Keeper that the usual mechanic of just using a Spot Hidden roll isn’t enough, the players need to specifically state where they are searching, in detail, and should not be given clues.

If you make the treasure so hard to find that it requires the players to deviate from the game mechanics, why include it at all?  If you don’t want your players to have it, don’t put it in the game.

With this in mind, I try to make searching for secrets easier and more engaging.  I allow players to use “passive mode” searching at the regular chances.  This is the usual method of searching for secret doors with the usual chances of success.  This works well for keeping the game going, but lacks the player engagement.

To help with that I offer bonuses for more specific searches.  “We search the room for secret doors,” results in the regular chance of finding them.  “We search the room, giving particular attention to the alter,” gives them a +1 to find anything hidden on or around the alter.  If the players get more specific I give a higher bonus.  It hasn’t happened yet, but if a player ever gets so specific that they nail the mechanism exactly I will dispense with the roll.

Over time this has also influenced how I design my dungeons.  I am less likely to include a secret door in a hallway than a room, especially if it’s the only access to the hidden chamber.  Players are more likely to perform a detailed search in a room than a corridor.  If the hidden area is made up of several chambers or one room of large size, I am likely to include more than one way into it.  One thing I haven’t made use of, but have been considering, is leaving clues around.  This may be rumors in the tavern, riddles from a Magic Mouth, or scraps of parchment found through exploration.  Such clues shouldn’t lead the players straight to the door, but should give them reasons to look at the map and guess where to try.



Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Dungeon Design, Gaming


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3 responses to “Confessions of an OSR DM

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