Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Guest Post: Death Lurks in Every Nook and Cranny

After three weeks in the desert, and nearing the limits of the outward bound journey that supplies can sustain, a terrible sand storm kicks up. It blows for hours. Animals and men panic and scatter. Some are buried and lost. Even those who hunkered down find themselves disoriented and alone when the storm abates.

The party of six stuck together through the storm, but find themselves isolated from the main body. They have held onto two camels, but are low on food and water. Led by the Elf, they plot a course hoping to locate others with supplies. After a dry and wearying march, they stumble upon the ruins of an old city. A circular defensive wall can be made out here and there, as well as the stone husks of ancient buildings. A huge five-tiered step pyramid dominates the scene. Atop the pyramid are three massive bronze statues, the tallest nearly 30′ high, long since tarnished. All seems quiet and deserted.

They carefully approach the ziggurat, and come upon three horrid rat-like birds (Stirges) apparently feeding on a hawk. They have long, tapered beaks and leathery tails. With his long bow, Kraalll fells one on the ground and another in flight. The third disappears behind the ziggurat. Close examination of the hawk confirms that it is from the expedition, and brings to mind the falconer’s complaints in the days prior to the storm that some of his birds were not returning.

After scouting the ruins, finding only shade, the party ascends the ramp on the south side of the ziggurat. Near the top, they espy the corpse of an Orc propping open a door in the side of the ramp. Before examining the door further, they ascend all the way to the top and carefully comb over the base of the statues.

This was the beginning of an obsession with security on the part of a couple players. One player in particular had played role playing games riddled with traps and secret doors, and his meta-gaming was on full tilt. The players were also acutely aware of how fragile their characters were, in terms of hit points.

Over the course of our games, I have not begrudged the party their efforts to search for traps and secret doors. While it is not in keeping with the game world in general or any sensible take on the characters’ background, such paranoia is totally in keeping with Tom Moldvay’s Basic D&D and with module B4 in particular. To strip them of meta-gaming might be more “realistic” and less tedious, but it would also make for a more lethal game. This is just a logical consequence of the system.

The party discovers that the dead Orc was one of their own (from the secondary group). They uncover the crossbow trap at the end of the hallway, liberating the oversized crossbow (not quite a ballista, but still a handful), and carefully force the door to the top tier’s single room.

I cannot stress enough how much care was taken at every bend in the hall, every door, and so on. Every reconnaissance tool at the party’s disposal was used—10′ pole, examining door handles, locks, hinges, looking for pressure plates, weird seams in the walls, listening at doors… you name it. It was, and continues to be, a struggle for me to add color and description of the physical environment such that the players can describe what elements they examine most closely.

Of course, it’s important that I not describe only the parts of the module where there actually are secrets to find, lest the players take my mere act of description as a signal to be vigilant. It’s a struggle because I’m not an amazing storyteller, nor do I have an infinite reservoir of imagination with which to visualize each room and hall even in my own mind. There’s a real balancing act when it comes to description, giving players latitude, streamlining action, and getting to the juicy bits of an adventure. I think the balance I’ve achieved is, in general, imperfect but adequate. It helps that the players are good sports and mostly enthusiastic.

In the Statue Room they notice two more dead Orcs (also from the expedition) with no visible wounds. They also uncover and trigger the two remaining tube-traps. Having spiked both the external door and the door to the Statue Room, they trigger the poison gas trap, but at the same time allow the gas to escape. The Elf and Thief hear it and stop up the vents with fabric torn off the Orcs.

They next turn their attention to the tubes, again with great care. Finding no obvious threat in either direction, they explore upwards first, quickly figuring out the mechanisms that animate the statues outside.

Turning attention downwards, they catch inexplicable glimpses of the Fire Beetles’ glowing glands. Having identified a threat, they perching on the top wrungs of the ladders, and dispatch two of the beetles with ranged weapons before the third scuttles behind some barrels. Feeling confident, they form a half-circle round the barrels and poke and prod behind. The beetle wins initiative and, in one chomp of its mandibles, kills Grogan Graylips outright. The rest then hack the beetle to pieces. After a thorough search of the room, we end Session 1.


Both the Basic rulebook and B4 are explicit about the fact that the ability to detect traps and secret doors is not passive. It is not radar that is on constantly. Players must not only explicitly say they are searching for traps or secret doors, but also must describe where and how they look. That fact, combined with how B4 opens, conspires to slow play big time. By the time players search the very first room of the module, they have encountered FIVE traps (albeit two already triggered). I don’t know if Tom Moldvay intended B4 to be a training ground for future D&D players in the way that B2: Keep on the Borderlands was clearly intended as a training module for GMs. Even if he didn’t  B4 seems to serve that function. It instantly puts players on alert that death really does lurk in every nook and cranny, and that if they don’t take care, they will totally perish.

1st level players are fragile. Melee is dangerous. Losing initiative is critical. Fighting fair is dumb. This actually all makes sense if we conceive of Basic D&D as a resource management game. If resources are scarce—torches, oil, rations, water, iron spikes—then how long it takes do something matters. Inch by inch progression down a hallway has a price in expended resources. It also increases the chance of a Wandering Monster—a potentially dangerous, no-treasure encounter. But inch by inch progression is the only way to be safe and thorough. Rash action will eventually lead to a nasty trap. Whether it makes for a good game or not, there is a pretty elegant balance going on.

This isn’t the exciting, fast-paced game we played as kids. We always played with detection abilities constantly and passively on. That might be the only way to mitigate the slow pace of the game as written. Not that this session was unrewarding. It was plenty fun. And the players had an edge, in that at least one of them had the old-school, always-search-for-everything mindset, such that their chosen pace was modulated pretty well to what I see as the implied pace of the module itself.

Read Earlburt’s entire series on The Lost City:

  1. Setting out for the Lost City
  2. Nonvariable Weapon Damage, Alignment Tongues, and Rolling Hit Dice
  3. Setting and Player Introduction for The Lost City
  4. Into The Desert
  5. Context, Cut Scenes, and the Pen and Paper Experience

5 responses to “Guest Post: Death Lurks in Every Nook and Cranny

  1. Chris Mata November 14, 2012 at 7:29 am

    I can’t wait for the movie adaption.

    BTW, your ability to tell a story seems fine to me. :)

    Keep it up.

  2. PeterD November 14, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    One way to run secret and trap detection is to allow both passive and active. Passive either works as written, and active gives a bonus, or you can allow passive spotting at a penalty and the normal roll if they take the time. That means you might miss a few but can move more quickly, but you can spend extra time where you’re sure something is.

    It could speed up the game, if “we check it for secret doors by tapping, checking for edges, rolling marble across it, blah blah blah” every room is getting to you.

    I personally let my players build a standard operating procedure, so at least we don’t spend as much time in the session even if the characters take more time in the game world.

    • earlburt November 16, 2012 at 1:03 am

      They’ve described to me often enough the routine for checking doors, moving down halls, etc., that I think I will start treating it as a SoP. They can just inform me if they’re moving slow and careful, or cruising speed, and I’ll do search rolls accordingly. There’s no need for solicit description from them EVERY time. I think there’s only one or two more traps where the module actually describes the exact triggering mechanism anyway.

  3. Michael January 22, 2013 at 4:36 am

    The odd thing about metagaming is that, in moderation, it makes perfect roleplaying! Your characters may not have had a reason to suspect traps around the pyramid’s base but they certainly had reason to suspect traps inside after seeing that dead orc–a person who didn’t take the hint and move with caution from there on in would have no business leaving their home village.

  4. Dollie March 9, 2017 at 5:07 am

    Over the Easter period there is one food which I’ve never had in any other houshold but my molrnh-ie-taws, and that is zupa chrzanowa. Served cold with cured meats and hard bolied eggs thrown in (that last part is self service). Gobsmackingly delicious. We always make sure she makes a surplus, which we then take home and comfort ourselves with over the next few days.

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