Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks by gradenko_2000
OverviewOriginal SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
I'm always on the look-out for GM-ing advice-type books, so when this showed up on my radar, I had to try it. I did not like it.
I'd like to preface my read-through with that. I'm going to be uncharitable, and some of this is going to come down to my own personal style clashing with this person's and probably me calling it badwrongfun, but I can't help it, that's just the way I feel.
To start us off, the cover art itself shows us someone, ostensibly the GM, rolling a d20 and gleefully crushing a pair of what I can only assume are player-characters. That, plus the opening to the introduction, sets the tone:
Welcome to Bill Webb’s Book of Dirty Tricks. This fun little tome is a GM utility for use during regular play when either too many good things happen to the players due to luck or just whenever the GM feels they need a little push to remind them that success is fleeting.
He says that these "tricks" are usually lifted from all sorts of media, but he doesn't do it verbatim, because otherwise his "victims" might already be familiar with them.
As further background, Bill Webb himself is the CEO of Frog God Games, the publisher of Original D&D retroclone Swords & Wizardry (and also Pathfinder-compatible equivalents), and especially the Rappan Athuk megadungeon, which is purportedly inspired by Gygaxian classics like the Tomb of Horrors.
That should give you an idea of what we're in for: cutting the legs out from under your players, and referring to them as victims. Great.
The book is divided into multiple parts:
Part 1: Bill Webb's House Rules
This is a series of house rules that have been used in the Lost Lands for more than 35 years. If applied, these rules significantly decrease the power level of play and make the game much more difficult.
The real key here is that advancement in my campaign is slow. Characters and monsters, even high level ones, are vulnerable and can be killed. Players in my game who have reached 6th- or 7th-level are proud of their accomplishment.
This just sets off all sorts of red flags in my head. Make the characters weaker and make them earn their fun .
Part 2: The Players Got Too Much Treasure
This series of tricks is designed to “take away” some of the players’ ill-gotten gains based on circumstances outside of the main game. These can be used for several reasons. First, if the players simply got a little too lucky and gathered a few too many gold pieces last adventure, the GM may need to take back some of that loot without appearing capricious. Second, the dirty tricks can be used to provide impetus for the players to “get going already.” Nothing spurs a group of greedy players out the door more than financial hardship. Last, it offers a sense of realism. I mean, really, who among us has not gotten a bonus at work, just to have the car break down or that tuition payment be due all in the same week? The GM giveth, and the GM taketh away … that is just the reality of the game.
So, you're the GM, right? You're the ultimate arbiter of what gets dropped in the dungeon. How is it possible that you're going to give the players "too much" treasure? If you hand-selected your treasure, it couldn't possibly be too much, because you made it that way! If you randomly rolled it, how about biting your tongue and deleting one line of the roll results before awarding to the players rather than dicking around with them?
The last bit about the car breaking down after getting a bonus is also very God complex-y. Unless I'm maybe playing a game of Red Markets where economic horror is the self-advertised name of the game, I really don't need to experience capitalistic "poverty trap" mechanics in my game of reality-escapism.
Part 3: Situational Advantage (Environment)
This one is not so bad. It talks about how you can make tunnels slippery, or dungeon rooms have stinky air, or battlefields have mud and rubble, to add an extra layer of difficulty so that you can keep monsters simple while driving up the challenge.
Part 4: Time Wasters
Specific situations where this GM has used some of these include the “all-elf party” where secret door detection became laughable (also known as “the reason Bill hates elves”), as well as one instance where I found that my players started casting defensive spells every time my favor text got heavy.
Whenever the players are set-up to succeed at something, dick with them a bit to show them what for.
Part 5: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
These tricks are used to remove the predictability of what seems a safe or easy situation. Just because it’s a goblin does not mean it has fewer than 8 hp and that your fghters get multiple attacks against it.
More of what I'd consider bad GMing advice: deliberately withhold information from the players, then use it against them.
Part 6: Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
More fun for the GM and less dangerous for the players are the sheep that appear to be wolves. It always brings back memories of The Wizard of Oz for me. It’s a blast to have the players waste spells and magic items to completely obliterate that 1 hp bad guy. Sometimes it’s dangerous to do so (remember your frst gas spore?), but most of the time it’s just paranoia followed by massive overkill. These tricks are particularly effective when used deep in a
dungeon, right after a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing encounter, or in another way where the players are expecting the worst. It’s quite entertaining to see if you can get the 10th-level party to negotiate a truce with the 1 HD goblin because he “scares the hell out of them.”
Again, if you drop a lede on the players to elicit a specific reaction, then you point at them and laugh for taking that reaction, you're an asshole.
Part 7: Trickery
This is more of the same - things to "keep players on their toes" or "teach them how play more carefully"
Part 8: Greed is Bad!
Often, players get greedy. They simply are not satisfed with some random boon or thing that they have found, and seek to exploit it. I am often reminded of the Once-ler from Dr. Suess’ [sic] “The Lorax” when I am motivated to use tricks like these. Having found a “good thing,” the players may try to get “too much of a good thing.” This, of course, must be punished.
And I think we've hit antagonistic GM bingo here, with the author referring to punishing the players.
Next: The Battle of Agincourt
Bill's House RulesOriginal SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 1: Bill's House Rules
The first house rule is with regards to experience points. Most of it is standard D&D fare: The whole 1 GP = 1 XP conversion doesn't count until the money's spent. Specifically, Fighters and Thieves have to spend it on "wine, women and song", while Clerics, Druids, Monks, Paladins and Rangers have to donate it to charity. Wizards have to spend it on magical research.
There's also a note about simplifying monster XP: 1 XP per hit point, times the monster's Hit Dice (as an equivalent to the monster's level). So if you killed a 7 HP monster that had 2 HD, you'd gain 14 XP. This is, of course, very low, but most of the XP in an old-school D&D game is supposed to come from treasure anyway, but at least this method is easier to compute.
He also doesn't award XP for finding magical items, but arguably that's okay, since the value of a magical item should come from the increased power that a Sword +1 gives you to begin with. Fine.
He even mentions handing out "quest XP" for completing objectives, at the DM's own judgement.
Where it gets ugly is when he talks about how these methods should come together to determine how fast the characters should level up. If you've played World of Warcraft at all in the last couple of years, you may have seen hand-wringing about how the "instant boost to level 90" feature would produce players that didn't know how to play their characters, because they didn't learn by leveling up. This is sort of like that, in tabletop form:
This method of XP distributions sets up for a slow level-gain campaign. I take pride in building player skill, not character skill, in my game. Slow advancement means players learn new tricks. Life is precious, and players take a higher level of care than they do if advancement is fast. Again, this method is not for everyone, but I do find it works well for me and my players.
A great example of this for all you grognards out there relates to a piece I wrote in Crusader Journal a few years back. Advancement in 3.X is so rapid that it made me think about the differences in player skill at mid to high levels. In the old days, it took years to advance to say, 10th-level. It took hundreds of hours of play and lots of wits to survive that long. In later versions of the game, one could advance a level in 2 to 3 gaming sessions.
Putting this in context is a module like Tomb of Horrors. Imagine a player who has 500 hours invested in learning to play his character; he knows his skills and abilities inside and out. He values and holds dear the life of his character as if it were his own. Now take a player who has maybe 50 hours of play with the same power. Now put them both in Gary’s Tomb. The second guy is in for a short adventure.
And with a follow-up sidebar for how this translates to Pathfinder:
A similar rule of thumb for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game system would be to award 1 XP per monster hit point x its CR rating. Or use the slow advancement track for XPs. To truly replicate Bill’s home flavor, double the slow track!
So what I'm getting here is that he has his very own particular way of running a Swords & Wizardry game, and he's going to make it take forever for you to get to level 2 because that's going to teach you, over time, how to adapt to his particular style of GM-ing.
Instead of, you know, talking to you and informing you about genre tropes that you need to watch out for, it'll be by trial-and-error. It's like there's a platonic ideal of how to crawl through a dungeon and he expects you to learn it by osmosis. I'm a little flabbergasted because if I was, for example, playing WoW and the Hunter player next to me isn't pulling off their "rotation" correctly, my hands are tied beyond trying to teach him because that's just how the game works.
If, on the other hand, I was playing a tabletop game, whose enforcement of rules are completely up to me as the GM, and the player is about to do something that sounds like it's going to be a stupid course of action, it's not like I'm obliged to let him go through with it, especially when I'm partially responsible for not giving the player enough working information to make an intelligent choice in the first place. How was he supposed to know?
Attributes and Bonuses
The first part is again, standard fare: if the attribute is 13 or higher, the character gets a +1 bonus to relevant rolls and a 5% XP bonus. If it's lower than 8, it's a -1 penalty instead. It plays well with his own rule that character stats are 3d6-in-order, since it doesn't matter if you roll like crap if there's no huge bonus to miss out on.
And then it turns ugly again:
Even players using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game could try this approach. It would take some getting used to, but I encourage you to give it a try and see how the players adapt. Try the 3d6 method, too. Players used to all high scores may complain at first, but after a while they get used to it and start using their heads instead of their stats to make characters legendary. The single highest level player character ever to play in my Lost Lands campaign (Flail the Great) had a 17 wisdom and nothing else above 9.
It's incredibly ignorant of game design and mechanics to just turn around and recommend you play a Pathfinder character with 3d6-down-the-line stats, especially when you also expect them to make up the difference via "player skill", when you're also not going to teach them anything! And on top of all that, you're also supposed to use the Slow XP Advancement track and make it twice as slow!
Table Dice Rolls
One simple rule — no cheating. To easily enforce this without incident, I require all, including myself, to roll dice only when it is their turn (or when asked), and to roll all dice that do not require secrecy (things that players cannot know the success or failure of, like disarming a trap or finding a secret door) on the table in front of everyone. The benefit of this is that it builds team spirit as players cheer one another to “Roll that 20!” and even complex combats retain order.
A note here, this style of dice rolling makes a game extremely lethal as the GM cannot cheat the dice to save lives. I have rarely seen a GM cheat to kill a player, although I have seen dozens cheat to save them. My players know I don’t, and this adds to the fairness and enjoyment of the game in my opinion. Success is earned by luck and skill, and not under false tenets.
Okay, the first half is pretty reasonable. It's just a particular way of handling table manners, whatever floats their boat, that's as good an approach as any.
The second half again makes a reference to "player skill" as something that matters. Like, when you're playing a game that's as open-ended as OD&D, maybe you can earn a +2 AC bonus from "hiding behind the bar", but because there's no rules to cover it, the GM has to tell you what's possible. If they were playing a game as regimented and procedural as Pathfinder or 4th Edition D&D, then maybe you'd have a leg to stand on because the players could always be aware of the myriad mechanics that interact with the game, but otherwise you're just pulling their leg when you don't tell them that they could have slowed down the skeletons by throwing up tables and chairs in front of them but they didn't, and now they're dead.
Damage Rolls and the Value of Magic Weapons
This is probably the least objectionable part of this chapter. He just says that everything deals 1d6 damage, except smaller weapons get a -1, two-handers get a +1, and natural 20s and 1s are just plain hits and plain misses.
Hit Points and Rolls to Hit
Of all my house rules, this one creates the most controversy. Here goes: All creatures and characters need an 18 to hit AC 0, except monsters and pure fighters (not rangers or paladins) which need a 17. This never improves except by magic and strength bonuses (and dexterity bonuses for missiles). Thus, a 10th-level fighter and a 1st-level fighter need the same roll to hit.
OK, has everyone finished spraying the Mountain Dew out of their noses yet?
The idea here is that adding a bonus to hit along with extra hit points is double dipping. Higher-level characters not only hit easier, but can take more punishment than low-level guys. That just does not seem right. It is still hard to bust through that plate armor, even if you have 70 hp. It’s commonly misunderstood that at the Battle of Agincourt, the French knights were not actually slain by arrows (although their unbarded horses were), but instead by bowmen with daggers who killed them while incapacitated by falling wounds or mud. Armor is hard to penetrate for anyone. Arrows (or even bullets) still bounce off plate steel.
The idea here [yes, he says this twice] is that an attack dealing a slaying blow really only does 1d6 damage. Creatures with higher hit points just avoid that last 1d6 hit for a long time. The character skill is in the hit points, not the dice adds. A 10th-level fighter just avoids the first 9 attacks that would have killed him, only being slain when he is too weary or cut up to get out of the way. The 1st-level fighter lacks the skill (hit points) to dodge those first 9 blows.
To his credit, he does acknowledge that it's a controversial houserule, and maybe he's right about double-dipping, that you shouldn't also get a better chance-to-hit when you're already getting more HP, especially when to-hit and AC are going to have an escalating arms race anyway.
What doesn't sit well with me is that he has this heartbreaker's idea of how combat should work, complete with a reference to a historical event as how it should have worked realistically , and then he's projecting it onto this game instead of a new/different one.
Lamentations of a Flame Princess had the idea that only the Fighter should get a better to-hit, and that a Magic-User's to-hit never improves across the entire level range, but that was LOTFP as its own game. Swords and Wizardry already is its own game outside of OD&D, and then he's piling on this other system on top of it too.
Even worse is when he even recommends it for Pathfinder, because of course he does.
Up Next: Manipulating the gargoyle's buttocks
Bill's House Rules (continued)Original SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 1: Bill's House Rules (continued)
Travel and Getting Lost
For every 5 miles traveled, roll a d6 to see if the party actually moves in the direction that they want to. A 1 means they get Lost in Plains or River terrain, with rougher terrain tupes increasing the chance of getting Lost, all the way up to Badlands and Swamps causing misdirection on a 1 through 4 on a d6.
Druids and Rangers act as cumulative +1 modifiers to the roll, as do high WIS characters, and GM fiat regarding familiarity with the area.
If the party becomes Lost, there's a d8 table to check which direction they randomly go off to.
Food and Water, or “Let Them Eat Cake”
Basically, a man needs 2 pounds of food and 1 gallon of water per day. Draft animals need more, and more hostile environments act as a multiplier on the amount of water needed. Couple this with the Lost rules, and the expectation is that you'll have to stock up on provisions, and have a buffer in case you get so lost that you spend additional days out in the wild.
If you need to live off the land, there's a d20 table with a base 45% chance of letting you successfully roll on the d100 Foraging Results table. Having Druids, Rangers and Thieves in the party grants bonuses when foraging.
Up until this point, the previous sections have been reasonable. Maaaybe the Lost rules are a little bit of "hidden GM information", but otherwise, as long as you have that conversation with your players that you're going to need to play out Fantasy Oregon Trail, it should be manageable.
And then we get to the Foraging Results table. It has a 90% chance of yielding something useful, a 5% chance of letting you unwittingly drink poisoned water, and a 5% chance of letting you unwittingly eat poisoned food. Both poisoned water and poisoned food are save-or-die effects.
But hey, look on the bright side: if you have a level 3+ Druid in your party, they're never affected by poison food and water, and:
can prevent the same if they inspect food and water before ingestion. Taint can be removed by use of a purify water spell. Poison food (e.g. toadstools) cannot be made nonpoisonous.
So how much are you willing to bet that it's considered part of "player skill" for the Druid to need to explicitly declare that they're inspecting the foraged food and water?
Surprise, Initiative, and Melee Order and Spellcasting in Combat
Surprise is simple: roll a d6, and the party is surprised on a 1 or 2. If they have a Ranger, only a 1 will result in surprise.
Player skill alert:
if the player characters are using light in a dark place, they cannot surprise a creature that does not need light if in an open space
As for initiative, you first declare your actions, THEN you roll a d6, then your declared actions are executed in initiative order, with higher Dexterity to break ties. There's a bit in here about how you must declare missile fire, spellcasting, and weapon swapping before initiative is rolled, but if you lose initiative and a monster runs up to you and you get hit, then your missile attack does not go off, or your spell is disrupted, or you're caught with the wrong weapon. I'm going to be charitable and not really call this out as the author being particularly vindictive, since that's a "natural" objective of every old-school initiative system anyway.
Hit Points, Death and Dying
This part goes back to being reasonable:
* Max HP at level 1, rolled HP for every succeeding level afterwards.
* 0 HP means unconsciousness
* Death comes at [negative of character level] HP
* He says he explicitly allows Raise Dead spells, so long as you can get the body to a Cleric at a temple
Doing Things Rather than Rolling Dice
When I added thieves to my game in 1978 or so, I allowed traps to be detected without a roll — but to disarm one, you still had to describe to me what you were doing and how. To be fair, characters with high disarm scores or with an ability to detect something (like elves with secret doors or dwarves with stone traps) were given more or better descriptive information, but everyone still had to interact with me as a GM rather than simply roll a die. The GM should give characters with better skills a better understanding of the effects of what they are doing could be. It should not be definite, but to tell the dwarf player “Based on your knowledge of stonework, it appears that the ceiling block may be triggered by moving the loose stone to the left” is reasonable (assuming you made the dice roll indicating he understood it). Likewise, telling the elf player “There appears to be a series of buttons along the edge of the wall. Two of them are slightly depressed and the other two protrude slightly from the wall” is a lot cooler than saying “Oh look, a secret door is present on the north wall.”
So, let's break this down:
First, you have to have the ability (or the narrative presence-of-mind) to detect a secret
Then, you have to roll to detect it
Then, you have to play 20 questions with the GM to get it disarmed
He even provides you with a handy table of trap mechanisms:
And then he does it with secret doors, too:
You must ... Slide up ... The gargoyle's buttocks ... Forcefully
Like, this is precisely why the Thief class was created! Does he also expect the Fighter's player to benchpress in front of him to gain a +1 to attack bonus? Maybe have the Wizard rub their belly while patting their head to cast a spell?
Up Next: A Europa Universalis reference
The Players Got Too Much TreasureOriginal SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 2: The Players Got Too Much Treasure
As I mentioned in the introduction, this one is about ways and means to reduce the amount of riches that the players have, in the event that they end up with an amount that you, the GM, feel is too much for them (or for you to handle). Again, I'm not quite sure how this happens, but lets set that aside for now and get right into it.
The initial contact occurs when the players are back in town, right after they have spent a large sum on whatever it was that they wanted to buy (armor, horses, magic, etc.). Whatever the cause, the “rich” adventurers’ rampant spending catches the eye of an agent of the local tax collector.
The players are approached by the tax collector named, sure why not, Paul the tax collector, accompanied by six men-at-arms, all wearing the regalia of the local lord. Paul informs the players that he has learned that they recently came into a large amount of wealth, and that he has been instructed to inventory and valuate this wealth for purposes of the local income tax. Paul evaluates wealth based on retail (e.g. book) value of all mundane items. He is not a wizard, nor can he properly assess magic item values. Hence, a staff of power looks (to him) just like a fancy carved wooden staff, maybe with a few gems encrusted on it.
The tax rate, he explains, is 25% of the total value of wealth gained per year, and since the players are new to the area, the baseline amount (25% of their total wealth) is due now. Not to worry, he goes on, subsequent years will be taxed based on the amount of “new wealth” gained, and not residuals on the existing wealth assessed this year.
Now, part of what he says is true, and part is a lie. The local lord did indeed send him to collect a tax — but that tax is supposed to be 10%, not 25%. Paul and his men at arms are adding a “surcharge” to the lord’s taxes.
The book does at least present the situation as a possible source of plot hooks:
The players could in fact just pay up the 25% tax, and that's supposed to be completely acceptable, no dirty tricks. I mean, mission accomplished if they're out so many thousand gold in arrears, right?
They could kill the tax collector, but that would make outlaws. This sounds like a great way to derail the campaign, but as long as you tell the players that it's going to bring down the law on them, so be it.
They could play along with paying the tax, but exploit things like stuffing the real goods in a bag of holding or Paul the Collector's inability to identify magical items to get away with paying less than their true net worth.
Finally, the players could try negotiating with Paul to lower the tax rate. Paul would play along as low as 15%, but not much lower or else he doesn't get his kickback. Players who are exceedingly investigative might even figure out Paul's scam and plan a course of action from there, or players might want to deal with the King directly.
These are all fine ideas, though I'd be wary of it being too distracting from the whole dungeon crawling aspect if you get caught up in financial and court intrigue.
This one is about things like having a player's weapon placed next to a dead body, or an NPC Assassin impersonating a PC and making it look like the player killed an NPC that then brings down the law on the party.
The first scenario that could come out of this is the "prove your innocence by finding the real killer" episode. There's also a bit in there about PC Paladins being conflicted over the law demanding their surrender and knowing that they're not responsible.
The second, and in my opinion more fun option, is the “imprison the characters, take their stuff, and see how they react/escape” version. After all, one of their “mother’s sister’s cousins” may have told them of a secret way out of the dungeon (Conan the Barbarian) . Perhaps the princess has fallen in love with them (e.g. Jason and the Argonauts, Braveheart ), or perhaps instead they just have to arrange an escape or rescue (Robin Hood) .
One very challenging way to do this is to have them captured and imprisoned in the deep dungeons below the city. Have the guard be a man that they once fought beside, perhaps even saved the life of, in a battle. After a few days, the slop tray conveniently contains a method of escape: a key, a set of lock picks, etc.
The characters cannot go up and out of the dungeon, so they have to exit the city though the underworld — without gear and spells . Creating a hostile circumstance like this forces the characters to rely on their wits and not their +5 holy avenger . The GM simply creates a method (hopefully a chase scene) where the players have to run through a gauntlet of the populated dungeon (without killing any guards, since this would actually be a crime they were guilty of!) , perhaps landing in a sewer system for cavern system below it. The challenge then becomes a survival race. They have to figure a way out of this underworld (without gear) , figure out a method of exiting the underworld without being recaptured, and escape the area. Only then can they sort out a way to prove their innocence (perhaps re-entering the city in disguise?) and become outlaws in the process (very tough on the egos of Lawful characters). As the GM, you should provide them ample opportunity to prove themselves true, and thus regain their stuff.
Credit to the author for suggesting that the stuff gets regained at the very end.
I guess what sticks out to me at this point is that I'm beginning to see why Webb's games might take so many years if they're having to deal with a season of Prison Break in between dragon hoards.
That, and the fact that he's suggesting mystery and investigative scenes in a game that's decidedly not Fantasy Night's Black Agents.
Wilderness Bandits: The Gatekeeper
Place a dragon or some other large, imposing creature at the entrance to a dungeon (with the entrance being too small for the Gatekeeper to enter themselves), and have it demand anywhere between 30% to 50% of all treasure brought out.
The Gatekeeper has to be strong enough that the party just doesn't decide to kill it instead, but the tax rate shouldn't be so high that the players decide to head for a different dungeon, either.
Wilderness Bandits: The Opportunist
The author suggests cranking up the random encounter rolls in the overworld if the players are traveling with large sums of gold at their disposal.
Further, he suggests creating a party of NPC characters roughly equivalent to the players in relative power and stats, and have them form the core of a bandit mob that'll dog the players.
The schtick is that the bandits are supposed to act like, well, bandits . That is, even if they're roughly as powerful as the players, their main goal is to grab some of the players' gold, then run away. The theme seems to be the tabletop version of the Diablo 3 gold goblin where the players will throw all caution to the wind once they realize that the bandits have grabbed a sack of gems from their draft horse and are making off with it.
A Friend in Need
How many times have you seen this happen: An old friend, down on his luck, needs your help. Sometimes its circumstance, sometimes just bad luck, and sometimes, well, you know. One great way to take some of that treasure away from your players is to tug on the old heart strings. Remember that bartender in that inn from your first adventure? You know, the one who gave you the rumor that led to the ogre’s lair when you made 2nd level? Well, here he is, and he needs your help. What about that henchman who was killed last year? Well, his wife and three orphan kids are about to lose the farm. They need you to bail them out.
The author starts off this section small: an old, one-legged soldier, a homeless waif on the street, various other beggars asking the players for alms.
Then he escalates it: NPCs pitching the players with a business investment to open an inn or research a new spell, with the promise of a return on investment.
And then, he goes on to explain that well, in medieval times, most business never actually made enough money for their proprietors make a living off of , which strikes me as a rationalization for continually hitting up the players to inject the business with cash, without outright suggesting that you just scam the players.
One bright point though is the story-related idea that the people that the players help along the way serves as justification for why they attract followers upon reaching name level.
This just means that the temples and clerics that the players have come to rely on suddenly charge exorbitant prices, but of course you need to have some kind of background justification for it ...
My player group had a particularly successful series of adventures (some luck, some skill) where they had simply gained far too much loot far too quickly. It was one of those “oops, I messed up” GM moments. I mean the kind where you look at their sheets and consider resetting the campaign because they are so rich that there is no way they would ever adventure again. How I handled it was as follows:
The church of Muir demanded a 90% tithe of all goods and holdings from all players (and non-players). Bannor the Paladin and Flail the Great had to give the money. Speigel the Mage, Frac Cher and Helman did not have to (all real players in my campaign).
The problem was that the forces of evil (led by priests of Orcus, of course) had burned two cities to the east of Bard’s Gate. The marauding army was ravaging the countryside, and a call up of an army, aided by mercenaries from the south, was needed to stop it. The players were used to getting healed and cured by the temple, and so all but Helman decided to pay the fee (he fooled them into thinking his 40% or so was really 90%). The high priests (Flail was still an adventurer at the time, and had not yet become the high priest of Muir), after graciously taking away 90% of the players’ monetary wealth, asked them to help with the war as well.
The players were sent on a mission to recover three holy artifacts for use in the war. This adventure formed the basis of 14 months of play. The players never once questioned the fact that the “evil GM” had stolen all their money, because it was meaningful. The money taken by the priests had purpose, and in the players’ minds was worth spending. Until I wrote this (at least three of them will likely get copies of the book), I doubt any of them knew that I invented the storyline to get rid of all their loot. (John Murdoch is wringing his hands as he reads this.)
The point is, I was able to fix the mistake I made (well, Frac had this crazy knack of rolling 20s) that had the potential to kill the game, and I am fairly sure the players never were wise to what I had done.
Alternate uses of this that are not game changing could include an increase in fees to build a new temple, a requirement that raise dead spells include a quest to recover something, or to pay some huge amount of cash over time (my raise dead’s usually require a quest to tithe as a paladin). Just be careful how you use this one in particular, as it can be an obvious “screw the players” technique if used often or without proper planning.
... so that it's not obvious that you're just doing it to dick over the players.
Disaster in Home Town
This is A Friend in Need writ large. If the player's background involves a certain place that they came from or are especially fond of, you can have an earthquake level its temples, or have a great fire raze its castle, or have an 80s villain threaten to buy out the orphanage unless the players move to put a stop to it, and of course putting a stop to it is going to involve handing over cash to pay for the rebuilding.
Here is your new Castle (aka The Money Pit)
Personally, I'm not averse to let players have property. It's within the spirit of old-school D&D to be the masters of a domain, no matter how small. So I thought this was nice and a reflection of what I'd done a campaign before: the players wanted to build a castle, so I let them build it - I just didn't let them have the name level benefits until actual name level.
Well no, it's not like that at all:
OK, so this one is an oldie but a goody. One of the common tactics of the Tudor kings was to bequeath estates that had historically lost money to noblemen they wanted to destroy. Either the nobleman turned around the fortunes of the estate (and the king’s taxes became more profitable) or they went bankrupt trying. It was a sort of “F-you, pay me” situation for the nobleman. He owed the king a fixed fee for taxes on the estate, he received income from it, and he hoped that the latter exceeded the former. It often did not.
What he's suggesting is a Medieval Fantasy version of MouseHunt where the players are given ownership and control of a lot and its accompanying buildings, except they're super fixer-uppers and now it's a constant drain on their cash to get it all repaired, and then once its repaired, its going to need upkeep.
To be fair, he does emphasize that it should be possible to clean out the mines, drive the kobolds out of the fields and de-zombify the cemetery so that the domain will eventually become profitable, and that this process of turning a dump into a successful venture is going to make the players feel real good about themselves at the end of it all, but boy did that intro make it sound like you're just handing them the deed to a lemon and calling it good.
As a final word, he does suggest that there's a 10% chance every in-game month that some other random bad event happen to the domain, just to keep the players invested by forcing them to go back every once in a while.
Additional kingdom-building information can be found in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Ultimate Campaign sourcebook.
Up Next: Part 3: You're Going to Need a Zamboni
Situational Advantage (Environment)Original SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 3: Situational Advantage (Environment)
This chapter is about tricks you can pull to make your combats and encounters less routine.
This one has always inspired me, and those who have read my work know I use it often. Simply put, this dirty trick can turn relatively easy encounters hard by making combat more difficult (for the players) or by adding slapstick entertainment (by having everything slipping and falling).
One of the first things I learned about GMing was to not use "fumble tables" or "critical tables" because it turns a heroic fantasy into the Three Stooges.
Bill Webb's suggestion for doing exactly that is to set combats within icy caves, or slimy caves, or cave tunnels with a steep incline, or frozen lakes (whose ice can be broken!), or even just wet floors, and to ask the players to make a saving throw every time they move.
And to complete the ensemble, the players should be fighting either flying monsters, or cold-climate monsters that can walk on slippery ground without impediment.
Put the players at a disadvantage by putting their supply of oxygen in peril. He suggests using poison air, or flammable air (coal dust), or ...
Air that lacks oxygen is just plain deadly. We have all heard the stories about men going into confined spaces like a series of lemmings to rescue a fallen comrade, only to immediately collapse themselves, leaving many dead in some real-world cases. Each round a player character is in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, the character must save at a cumulative –4 or collapse (DC 20 Fort save to negate). Death results in 1d6 rounds.
He mentions that it's part of the players' responsibility to buy a songbird from the equipment list, and monitor its health.
And of course, that the players fight monsters that don't need to breath, such as the undead.
The most restrained part of this section is the mention that the players shouldn't be arbitrarily placed in an instant save-or-die situation: they should at least know what they're getting into. You're not supposed to tell them directly though, as his example of play suggests:
On a raised mound in the center of the swamp is what appears to be a large animal burrow of some sort. The hole is four feet across and roughly almond shaped. Daylight filters down the hole, revealing a tunnel descending 15 feet or so into a cave below. Near the entrance, the smell of rotten eggs is noticeable.
The smell seems to go away once anyone descends into the cave below. The cave contains what is best described as “hazy” air, and torches and candles burn with a weird, yellow hue. What anyone down in the cave fails to realize is that their sense of smell has been deadened by the sulfur dioxide gas present in the cave. The cave has exits to the left and right. The left tunnel goes back 50 feet and ends in a roughly circular cave. The right tunnel leads 80 feet back and ends in a fetid pool of swamp water.
The circular cave from the left tunnel contains the bones of several creatures, some as large as a badger. Careful inspection notes that the bones are yellowed and corroded, as if they had been subjected to acid. The pool at the end of the left tunnel is 10 feet deep and full of rotting vegetation (zero visibility; –20 circumstance penalty to all Perception checks). It eventually leads down a 200-foot-long submerged path to the outside swamp.
The real problem here is the toxic and corrosive gas anyone exploring the cave is exposed to. Each round, this gas does 1 point of damage (do not tell anyone this until they exit or collapse) . After only 2 rounds in the cave, saves must be made to avoid feeling dizzy each round. If saves are made (to avoid being dizzy as noted above; DC 15 Fortitude save), tell the player making the save they taste a strange, bitter taste in their mouth. Anyone reaching 0 hit points collapses and dies unless removed from the cave.
That last part is super not-cool. You can't push and prod the players to hurry along if you're not making them aware that they're actually on a timer!
Stinky the Skunk
Similar to the stunt he pulled with torches versus monsters that have darkvision/infravision, Webb suggests having Pepe le Pew wander into the players' campsite as a random wilderness encounter to inflict an effect that gives them a -4 modifier on the 1d6 surprise rolls.
This applies to anything within 100 feet of any object or creature sprayed. Items subjected to this effect retain their stink four times longer than creatures. Hence, the need to replace armor (and spend gold) and other items is real. It is, of course, imperative that the GM not tell players what in game effect this has. Further, reactions with any creature with olfactory senses are affected. Unless the creature has an affinity for bad smells (like an otyugh), the reaction is negative. Innkeepers are loath to allow stinky players to stay in their inns. They would charge as much as 10 times the normal cost — if they even agreed to lodge the characters at all!
I'm quoting this just to emphasize that he's being explicit about this sort of behavior. Outright hide information from your characters.
Slow Movement (Mud, Brush and Rubble)
Similar to Slippery Conditions, you can throw all sorts of debris and detritus in the battlefield terrain to cause reduced movement rates, blocked missile fire, and our by now regular "you cannot achieve surprise" because stepping on loose tree branches is too too noisy.
During 3.X, I had a player who figured out a way to do massive damage every time he found himself outside due to a sequence of mounted combat feats and a heavy warhorse. Imagine my disdain for a 3rd-level player character being able to wipe out a hill giant with 2–3 attacks.
In a similar vein, the sicko elven archer with the +10 bow of death can be forced to act differently if the 10 hobgoblin enemies he faces can be shot at only once a round, or at a huge penalty.
The example scenario is one set in forest underbrush, where trying to move more than a quarter of your speed at a time will require you to make saving throws to avoid tripping and being proned, and where ranged attacks have a -5 penalty. Meanwhile, your enemies are Kobolds that can move at half of their normal speed.
Death from Above!
Most people look around at eye level. It is reasonable to assume player characters do the same. Unless it is specifically stated that the characters are examining the area above them, the GM may assume they are not.
After pitching and idea for his new game: QWOPgeons and Dragons, he also indulges in a bit of historical commentary:
If nothing else is plain about every war since 1918, it’s that air power wins the day. In every case.
And continues his pattern of negating player abilities by remarking that the Paladin with a +5 Holy Avenger cannot hit an enemy that they cannot reach.
By "training" the players to constantly look up, you can then justify placing more traps and tricks in places above eye-level. This in turn forces the players to bring extra ropes, grappling hooks and iron pitons. That in turn consumes their weight capacity, leaving them with either less to haul out treasure with, or has them make hard choices about their survival.
Finally, he recommends using flying monsters - both as scouts to notify other monsters farther up ahead to prevent surprise from being had (yet again), or also as difficult challenges themselves, since as the GM you're entitled to imposing as high as a -4 penalty to ranged attacks against flyers.
Up Next: Part 4: Insert Goggles Joke Here
Time WastersOriginal SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 4: Time Wasters
(the point of this chapter is rather self-explanatory)
Fake Secret Door
So we learned from the earlier part that Bill Webb doesn't just let you roll to open a secret door: you have to figure out how to do manually/mechanically manipulate the doohickeys in the door to get it to open. He had a bad experience at a con game where the player party was composed of eight elves, which meant that they'd always find secret doors, since OD&D lets elves find secret doors on a 1 or 2 result of a 1d6 roll.
To extract a measure of payback (and he does explicitly use the word "payback"), you can throw a secret door that does nothing:
One panel in the hallway has an obvious crack in it. If the crack is inspected, it is noted that there is a thick layer of plaster covering a 4-foot-by-4-foot wall section. Behind the plaster is a strange panel. The stone of the panel is dark gray, contrasting with the lighter gray of the main section of wall. On the panel are 11 buttons.
The buttons do nothing besides push in and out, and neither does the wall panel. The only noticeable effect is that a maximum of three buttons can be pushed in at the same time. Pushing a fourth button causes one of the others to reset in the “out” position.
You're supposed to let the players futz around with this for as long as possible. His con game story ends with the players spending an entire real-time hour and six wandering monster checks before they left the fake door alone.
False Adventure Lead
Another nasty thing to do to your players is to create a fake adventure lead. This trick is occasionally necessary to ensure your campaign does not feel like it’s being run by a train conductor. After all, if every adventure lead is real, then you are really leading the players around by the nose rather than letting them explore and find things themselves.
He recommends things like fake treasure maps, false rumors, writings that lead nowhere and say nothing once deciphered, and puzzles that reward nothing once solved. The reasoning seems to be that it's more "real" if not every quest the players undertake is a productive one. He cites Harry Potter as an example: one of the Horcruxes was replaced by a fake one.
To his credit, he does say that you should use this trick with caution: if too many storyline leads aren't real, then the players won't want to play for any of them. Perhaps he's missed the irony of that statement in a book filled with false leads.
The example of play is about a con-man that sells the group a treasure map that describes a cave so many leagues from town, except nothing's there. The map is impervious to the Read Languages spell because, as Webb puts it, if the faux-Runic scrawl is just nonsense random gobbledygook then there's really nothing to decode, even when magic is used.
Finally, he says that such things dovetail well with draining the players of their loot, because they just paid the con-man 1000 GP for a fake map.
Magic Key (Does Nothing)
If you give the players a key, and especially a magic key, they will spend hours hunting for its matching lock.
Imagine a magical mystery key found in Rappan Athuk. I have done this, and had players explore 5 or 6 levels of the dungeon looking for a nonexistent lock. I wanted them in the dungeon, but needed the key as a carrot to keep them looking around.
This is the one that some of you might be familiar with: show the players a massive treasure hoard, but make it completely impractical to extract. He mentions the massive mithril gates at the start of Rappan Athuk as a specific example.
Creating large treasures that the players cannot easily obtain is fun, but beware: Six players may be smarter than one GM. You really need to be cautious to prevent them from developing a plan where they actually do get the 2 million gp thing out of the dungeon.
Everything since the end of the houserules section has so far been one big fuck-you after another, and he just keeps upping the ante when he tells the GM that he should deliberately craft the dungeon in such a manner that creative solutions by the players should not be allowed to work.
His example of play is to prevent a large cave in the middle of the desert. The interior of the cave is encrusted with huge crystals, all sorts of gems, and the interior walls are just one huge vein of raw gold.
And the players cannot access any of it because the crystals are larger than the cave's mouth, the gold needs to be melted down and refined before it will be honored as coinage, the cave will collapse even if you get manage to mine the gold or try to widen the cave's mouth, the cave-in is a save-or-die that still inflicts 6d6 damage on a successful save, and there's only 6 man-days of air if a cave-in happens, a cave-in needs 3d6 days to be tunneled out of, and assuming you survived all of that, you'll leave the cave to find that you're in the middle of a desert.
Extra Heavy Flavor Text
The players all got geared up every time the GM’s flavor text got heavy. One of the things I have tried to do over the years is to buff up the flavor text in dire and non-threatening situations. If you can make a harmless situation appear to be dire (e.g. “the blue flowers are unlike any you have ever seen before,” or “the wind blowing through the trees sounds like a strange voice whispering on the wind”), you can get players to waste their characters’ spells, sit on the edge of their seats, and better yet, become complacent when the danger is real.
The other thing that stood out to me in this section is that you should never describe a goblin as "a goblin", or a ghoul as "a ghoul".
Always use descriptive language when talking about a monster. A ghoul is far more intimidating as “a leathery gray-skinned creature with three-inch claws and red, piercing eyes that emits a howl of glee as it hops toward you, its mouth foaming with pus and blood.”
I have had a 6th-level party run away from a single ghoul by doing this.
This is perhaps not explicitly bad GMing advice, but it is almost word for word the same kind of advice that you get in the GM section of Lamentations of the Flame Princess , another old-school D&D retroclone, except that one is focused on Gothic Horror .
Anyway, it is very much a time waster: describe the depth of the pool, elaborate on how the water ripples, and remark about how the color seems just a little bit odd. The players will investigate the pool for a while, and find nothing.
Or maybe there really is a sharktopus waiting to eat them when they get too close to it.
Or maybe they'll take a sip of water in curiosity, only to find that it's perfectly drinkable fresh water.
Or maybe not.
Monkeys Typing Shakespeare
This is pretty much an extension of the False Adventure Lead: every so often drop a scroll or put some dungeon graffiti that either cannot be deciphered via any means because the writings are literally not of any actual language, or it's just random words that the players will spookily wonder and make assumptions about.
Buttons and Levers
This is like the Fake Secret Door trick, but you don't even need elves to fuck with the players. Just place some random buttons and levers across the dungeon and have the players manipulate them. Except they don't do anything.
Or maybe they actually do and it releases a crushing ceiling trap. And yes, he actually does say this.
Up Next: Part 6: The book's biggest sin yet - a Monty Python reference
Wolf in Sheep's ClothingOriginal SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 5: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
This is about tripping up your players by throwing threats at them that they will either not know about, or will underestimate
Cursed items are an old trick long used by GMs on poor, unsuspecting player characters. I am actually of the mind that this has often been done unfairly (you put on the necklace and die, no save), especially since most of the time the nature of the item is undetectable.
Truly awful cursed items should provide some warning. Sort of a “how dumb can you be” situation, like the cursed glowing purple gem in Tomb of Horrors. I mean seriously, anyone who picked that thing up just deserved to be killed by it.
The reasoning behind pulling a stunt like this is so that the players don't get complacent, and also to discourage them from putting on magic items as soon as they're acquired.
To be fair, the author does say that "you put it on, and then you die"-type curses should be avoided, as the players cannot be taught a lesson if the item just straight up kills them. Rather, he suggests creating items are critically flawed in one way or another, such as:
* A Berserking Sword that looks perfectly normal until you enter combat, at which point the wielding starts randomly attacking any and every living being within 60 feet
* A Backbiter Spear that looks perfectly normal until it is either thrown or rolls a 1 during the melee attack. When either of those two happen, the wielder deals themselves twice the amount of damage that should have been dealt to the enemy.
* Magical plate mail that falls to pieces when the wearer hits 5 HP or less
* Magical weapons that heal certain types of monsters when it hits them (of course, you won't know this until that particular monster is hit and healed)
* Magical potions that end suddenly or create delusional effects that aren't really there. "Flying is fun"
* A potion of growth, except it doesn't include your equipment.
You can also use this to "counterbalance" certain items: give the players a Wand of 12d6 Fireballs, except 10% of the time the AOE will be centered on the caster!
Kobolds with Toys
This is the author telling the reader to go ahead and practice Tucker's Kobolds against the players to keep them on their toes. The small 1 HD enemies can all have ranged weapons and will flee from any melee combat, their arrows will be poison-tipped, they will ignore the Fighters and shoot for the casters directly, they will hit-and-fade like the Viet Cong, and they will routinely lead the party into traps, bad terrain, larger monsters, killing zones, larger monsters, and gotcha encounters like skunks and rust monsters.
Practice that one Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene against the players:
The best use of this type of critter is to make it non-aggressive, only revealing its true terror when the players attack it. Clues about danger are mandatory: a pile of crushed skulls and bones, watching it claw its way through solid rock, etc. The key here is to demonstrate that size and appearance doesn’t always matter, and that even the smallest critter may be best left alone.
Like the section on interesting terrain, there's a nugget of good GM-ing advice here: don't make homogeneous monster encounters.
Pair medusae with monsters that don't need eyes. Pair mummies with gas spores. Pair incorporeal undead with spiders since the former won't be inhibited by the latter's webs. Basically, a gimmick monster is usually weak in a couple of other categories, but if you, say, combine rust monsters with a traditional threat like an owlbear, then the party then has to decide between putting away their metallic weapons to avoid getting them destroyed, or fighting the owlbears on even terms.
The Unkillable Monster
The point here is to challenge the players to be better problem-solvers by presenting them with a monster that cannot be killed. The author tones down the "gotcha"-ness here by suggesting that the monster should be slow enough to be regularly outrun and should not be overtly hostile to the players, but he still underscores the importance of players that end up suiciding against the immortal monster by charging in without considering what it is or could be.
Beauty is only Skin Deep
This is about pulling a switcheroo on the players: supposedly, if you have a beautiful woman as your NPC, the players will zero-in on her as being important/the villain. So instead, have a plain-looking woman NPC and maybe even have her need rescuing by the players, to lull them into a false sense of security, and then make her backstab the players to their surprise.
He later expounds this into other expectation-defying tropes: a small child, a grizzled old man, a geriatric farmer - all of these could be "the real enemy", but the language and descriptions used in this section are a little off-putting:
One of the biggest mistakes a GM can make is to have the beautiful, sexy villain woman be in every adventure. Nothing has been more entertaining for me than to have the player characters slaughter the gorgeous (and innocent) princess, only to have the modestly dressed, normal-looking woman be the true villain. Nothing makes a group of players more suspicious than the “hot chick” who they just know is a succubus, vampire or worse. It’s important that the GM mix this up, else the “rescue the maiden who is really an evil monster” trick won’t work.
In Demons and Devils, I wrote a she-devil encounter that was to be played a little differently. Having Princess Leia tactics, her snarky insults were incredibly disarming (and fatal) to many player characters. Would I have presented the lady as a dumb, horny, beautiful girl, they would have attacked immediately.
Another fun way to handle this is to have the villain pretend to be the victim, causing the player characters to select the wrong side in a fght. I have seen this done well several times. In the Hall of the Fire Giant King, for example, several of the prisoners were worse opponents than the giants. Consider this:
• The player characters happen across evidence of a party being slaughtered in the wild or dungeon. There is evidence that many were taken prisoner, and the logical solution for the Lawful party is to rescue them.
• They track the survivors back to their camp.
• They battle with the monsters/brigands, etc.
• They locate the prisoners, all of whom are dead except for an old woman.
• The old woman is in reality an evil witch who was the monster/brigand leader, but is pretending to be a victim to escape or slay the player characters. She killed all the others so they wouldn’t talk. She wails and cried about her treatment, telling PCs she is a poor merchant’s wife, and while not rich, she will see that they get a reward for their bravery.
• The witch proceeds to kill them in their sleep. Of course she doesn’t actually want to get back to civilization! Or else she escapes if the PCs are too powerful to kill, stealing what she can in the process.
Now if that old woman was a young nubile girl, the players would likely become suspicious. Rescuing the “merchant’s wife” seems a lot less dangerous than rescuing the “princess.” Likewise, promises of great rewards, in my opinion, make players suspicious. Offering little other than “a good deed done” is quite disarming.
We're just a Comeliness stat away from this becoming really uncomfortable.
Up Next: Getting your players to waste spells on non-existent threats
Sheep in Wolf's ClothingOriginal SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 6: Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
The opposite of the previous section, this is about misdirecting your players into threats that they think are more serious than they actually are.
Kobold with a Glowing Stick (aka the “Wiz”)
He namedrops the Wizard of Oz as a great example of this concept: using flashy parlor tricks and whatnot to seem more powerful and intimidating than they actually are.
The objective is to make the party think that they're in for a killer encounter, and then scam them out of money when they pay the puffed-up monster for the privilege of passing through unharmed.
A low-level Wizard might use a Potion of Gaseous Form to try and look like a djinn.
A kobold might wear flashy threads, cast Light on the end of its stick, and threaten the party with oblivion
A goblin might quaff a Potion of Giant's Strength and tear a breastplate right in front of the players to make its point (I'm pretty sure the Pathfinder rules don't allow this)
the GM should not describe creatures as a “goblin,” but rather as “a small, fanged humanoid, covered with tattoos of mystical symbols, wearing numerous bone and metal amulets and talismans, carrying a two-foot-long glowing femur bone.
This is an extension of the first idea. Have the kobolds manipulate a junkyard dragon with lots of drums and loud clanking. Have the goblins put up "scarecrows" that look like the shadows of powerful monsters against the dungeon's limited light. Line the parapets with inanimate skeletons that all have bows and arrows to make it look like the party is horribly overmatched.
As with the first idea, this mostly relies on the GM being an unreliable narrator. I think this is rather unfair to the players - at the very least you should use Perception or Insight or Investigation or Will to first determine if the character can, in-character, see through the ruse. If you make the kobolds try to give the impression of a dragon, but you tell the players that there's all the real and literal sounds and smells of a dragon out there, you're not really giving them any chance to react in a manner that'd be logical or reasonable than if they knew exactly what they were getting into.
Scary Looking Things
When dressing your dungeons, leave things like puddles of blood, green slime on walls and large inexplicable paw and claw marks on the floors, to make the dungeon look more spoopy than it really is.
There's perhaps nothing directly wrong with this advice, but it kind of reminds me of Death Frost Doom where you're mostly just pulling off the tabletop equivalent of the jump scare with nothing "real" to back it up.
The point of doing this is to make players think that a big important encounter is about to come up, so that they'll waste time/wandering monster checks being careful, as well as throwing up defensive buffs for a fight that's never coming.
The Loud Leaping Ghoul
The next time the party fights Ghouls, have one of them be an acrobatic Ghoul that swings from trees and ledges and walls and hedges. Narrate how the Ghoul is screeching and angry and fidgety. Basically make it the most annoying Ghoul possibly in the hopes that the party will expend a disproportionate amount of resources and effort towards killing it, even if the statblock is functionally the same as all other Ghouls.
First, in order to disbelieve an illusion, I require a “leap of faith” similar to Indiana Jones crossing the invisible bridge in The Last Crusade34. One must close his eyes and just walk right into/through the illusion, unless of course it is dispelled. Some reason must be present for a player character to even have a chance at disbelief. For example, if the demon suddenly changes places with the cleric (see Scramge in Rappan Athuk), this seems strange and could be disbelieved. If one falls through a floor and a splash is heard beneath it, it makes sense that the player characters would notice that “something is strange” about the floor, and would likely attempt to disbelieve.
* Illusions themselves cannot cause damage (some exception could be made for higher level spells). They cannot turn you to stone or incinerate you (yes, I know, Swords & Wizardry allows 2d6 damage — I do not).
* Illusions that are found out do not disappear.
* Failure to disbelieve prevents someone from successfully navigating past/through the illusion (think Harry Potter’s platform at the train station) because they veer off at the last second rather than hit the wall they “know” to be there.
* I allow players to use judgment to do things like “close their eyes and cross the invisible bridge” or “attack my friend the cleric, who I believe is really a demon” without making any rolls.
He goes on to describe effects like what happened in Conan the Destroyer where a phantasm was able to hurt people if they believed that it was actually real, or for Hallucinatory Terrain to provide actual movement rate penalties if the players fail to disbelieve.
You can also have illusions covering pits and traps, illusionary walls hiding the correct corridor to go down through, an entire illusionary camp that the players can sleep in only to be attacked in the middle of the night, and other such tricks.
Personally, I've never used illusions in my games, so I can't directly comment, but like the previous bits of "advice", it seems like these rely on the GM being an unreliable narrator, or that it requires pixelbitching players - I poke every wall and wait for my 10-foot-pole to pass through if it's an illusion.
Neither of which sounds very fun to me.
Up Next: Recursive Asshole GMing
TrickeryOriginal SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 7: Trickery
All the other parts are already trickery, so I'm guessing this is just trickery in general rather than against a specific theme.
Hidden Compartment within a Hidden Compartment
The player thinks they're a good player after they're managed to find the secret and managed to open it and get the goodies inside without killing themselves. Now you get to chuckle to yourself inwardly because there was actually another bit of loot, more valuable loot, inside the chest that they already emptied, presumably because they didn't explicitly declare that they're running their hands over the chest to check for a false bottom. You're supposed to place some loot in the first hidden compartment, just to make them think that they're all done now.
One of the keys to treasure distribution is that it should be hard to get. It should be either hard to find (e.g. hidden) or hard to carry. This trick makes a great tool in the GM’s arsenal to keep those pesky player characters from finding the loot. One of the biggest errors a GM can make is to make treasures obvious and easy to get. After all, most creatures would go to great lengths to hide their wealth lest it be stolen by their neighbors. I play this pretty tough. In honest estimation, I would bet that more than half the loot in my games is missed by player characters
What the fuck, guy. If you're so contemptuous of your players actually making progress, why are you still playing this game?
Trap on a Trap
A variation on a theme. The player has already disarmed a trap, so they proceed down the corridor ... and ah-ha! Skewered by a second trap! You should make the initial trap easy to disarm and/or easily detected, just to lull players into complacency.
Another idea is to have a trap that does nothing, except it is impossible to disarm - the players won't want to proceed down the hall knowing that the mechanism is still active, but what they don't know is that triggering the mechanism doesn't actually cause any harm!
Yet another idea is to make disarming the trap, the trap itself: place a pit trap right in front of the exposed innards of a crushing pendulum mechanism and watch as the Rogue walks right into it!
There's also a conversion of Pathfinder's Phantom Trap spell, for use in your Swords & Wizardry game. It lets casters plant an illusion that will "set off" a Rogue's trapfinding ability, even if it doesn't actually do anything. Put it on a thimble, then place the thimble on the pressure plate of a spiked wall.
Time-Limited Magic Item
In order to inject a sense of urgency into your games, create magic items whose abilities are on a timer. A magical sword that only works for so many attacks/kills. A potion of flying that only lasts 1d6 rounds. Better yet, an item that grants waterbreathing, but only until 200 feet of depth, at which point it turns off and does nothing.
As an example of play, the author tells us a story of a scenario he ran at GenCon:
The Golem Pool
The party enters a circular room fully 60 feet in diameter. In the center of the room is a small pool of liquid, 6 feet in diameter. The pool is filled with a silvery liquid, and cold radiates from it. On the far side of the room is a large throne, upon which sits a large iron statue of a fully armored knight. Its visor is pulled back to reveal a close-fit iron grating like a tiny portcullis. Both the pool and the statue radiate magic if detect magic is cast.
The pool lining itself is magical and keeps the liquid from freezing as long as it remains in the pool. The pool’s contents are a chemical mixture that freezes rapidly if removed from the pool. Anything placed in the pool is immediately frozen (flesh is destroyed; 2d6 points of damage if an arm or leg is placed in, 1 point of damage for a finger, instant death for anyone diving in, no save). Use of metal implements (pots, helmets, etc.) to remove the liquid makes them very cold, with the liquid inside freezing to ice in 1d3+1 rounds after removal. The residue forms a strange silvery solid (worth 10 gp a pound to an alchemist). A total of 300 pounds of material could be removed. Any hasty attempt at removal (see combat below) requires a save to avoid being splashed for 1d3 points of damage as icy liquid sloshes about (DC 15 Reflex save in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game).
The statue is an iron golem enchanted with a fiery breath weapon instead of the usual poison cloud. The monster, like most of its kind, is immune to virtually everything. It does, however, have one major vulnerability — magical cold directed at its furnace face can harm it, making it vulnerable to the “freeze-shatter” effect.
The golem breathes fire every round it is able. During the round it does this, its face visor opens, revealing the grated head behind. If the icy liquid is tossed into its face (save or take 1d3 points of splash damage, and treat as a grenade-like missile), its breath fails to take effect, and for the next round, its head (targeting a creatures head gets a –2 to hit on the attack roll) is affected by normal weapons. In addition, any hit with a blunt object does double damage that round.
The Melting Lock
This one is fairly simple: create locks that either destroy a key that you put into it if it's not the correct matching key, or create locks that destroy the contents of its container if you try to lockpick it or open it with an incorrect key.
After all, just because the players have killed the monsters doesn't mean the players should have free and access to the loot.
Tesseracts and Teleporters
This one involves using teleporters, bottomless pits, one-way doors, and sealing/shifting corridors and rooms to create a dungeon that is not straightforward to navigate through. It's not implied that any of the features should necessary be lethal, but they should result in the players getting hopelessly lost if they can't figure it out.
I Can Get In and You Can’t!
This one involves creating threats and bounties that the players might want to get through, but cannot because they are 5-foot-tall humanoids. Rat lairs, bricked-up chambers, or even completely sealed rooms partnered with incorporeal monsters are all places that are inaccessible to players unless they can come up with creative solutions.
To be fair, he does say that the placement of the room should make "sense", as in placing a sealed-up room in the middle of nowhere with nothing to tempt the players into it or even clue them to its possible existence is useless.
A sample scenario follows:
Sealed in Stone
This 20-foot-by-20-foot room contains an 8-foot-by-3-foot crypt shaped like a man, with ancient paintings and runes detailing curses (non-magical) that befall any who open the tomb. No exits from the room, other than the one through which the party entered, are present.
The crypt can be opened using a crowbar or lever. Its lid weighs more than 300 pounds. If dislodged, it opens to reveal the mummified remains of a man dressed in rotten finery and adorned with several pieces of costume jewelry (6 pieces worth 2d6 gp each). The crypt itself contains no secret compartments of other means of hiding anything. The real treasure of course, lies underneath the nearly 1,400 pound sarcophagus itself. If the whole thing is moved, it can be noticed that instead of smooth stone, the floor beneath is composed of mud brick and mortar. If the bricks are removed, 6 pieces of jewelry almost identically matching the fakes found on the body are found. They include:
• A cat’s-eye ring, made of gold, worth 200 gp.
• A silver necklace, set with 10 small emeralds, worth 900 gp.
• A platinum-and-gold broach in the shape of a spider with rubies for eyes, worth 600 gp.
• A gold ring engraved with runes (read magic reveals the command word —“Cassius”). This is a ring of water elemental command (2 charges remaining).
• A gold bracelet set with a large polished red agate, worth 70 gp.
• A solid jade snuff bottle filled with “ancient snuff” (really dust of appearance, 6 uses), worth 1,200 gp.
This is also, in my view, a variation of the hidden compartment in a hidden compartment trick. The players have already checked the coffin - they would never think of checking underneath the coffin, right?
I Got It, Now What?
This one is the most devious bit of fuckery yet, so I'll leave you with another excerpt, as I could not possibly do it justice:
This one is also an entertaining trick that can test the players and make them work for the treasure you give them. A clear example of this is a magic item or gem secreted away inside a Rubik’s Cube. You simply pass the cube across the table, inform them that it rattles around a bit, and make them solve it (in real life) to get the goodies. Another thing I have done is used a ring puzzle — you know, one of those wire things with a ring that slides back and forth, but is almost impossible to get off. The only time I have ever given a player a ring of spell turning I used this. The player had to get the ring off the wire puzzle before I would let his character wear it. Of course, the ring is quite fragile, so attempts to cut it off would destroy it. Examples of these types of puzzles can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disentanglement_puzzle . It took the player four gaming sessions before he finally got the thing loose!
The fucking gall of this guy to write a book, then throw you back to goddamned wikipedia for more examples of material!
Up Next: The Final Stretch
Greed is Bad!Original SA post Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks
Part 8: Greed is Bad!
This final section involves tricks and scenarios that try to exploit the players' desire for more loot and treasure.
Collapsing Treasure Room
We all remember the scene from The Mummy where the greedy evil henchman gets trapped inside the sealing tomb because he is unwilling to leave behind the hundred-pound sack of gold. Whether you trap a player character for being greedy or have the ceiling fall down on him, it’s a useful lesson that greed can get you killed.
Yet again, he's outright condoning the killing of player-characters in order to teach them a lesson, and for the mistake of not playing carefully.
Examples of this trick include:
* Load-bearing treasure: the loot is embedded in the walls, such that removing it will directly cause the building to collapse.
* Load-bearing enchantments being maintained by the Evil Wizard: when you kill the big bad, the structural integrity of the dungeon/castle/tower becomes compromised because reasons, and you only have a limited window to get out with what you can before it all comes down.
* A monster pulls a Samson and begins tearing down the walls of the dungeon, either as one of the enemies the party was already fighting, or as a new entrant into the fight
* From any of these situations, assume that the exit is some distance away and so the players have to make a break for the exit ... except the encumbrance rules mean they can't move that fast!
The point is that you must force the players to make hard and fast choices regarding how much treasure they're going to try to get away with.
I've seen this pulled off well exactly once, in a Dungeon Crawl Classics scenario. The players fought a purple demon on some island, they slew it, and it triggered a tsunami that would drown all of them. The GM made a secret roll to determine how many rounds the players had before the tsunami hit, and then played out loot recovery by rounds, something like "1 round of rummaging through the gold pile nets you 100 GP". That's probably the best use of this trope, because it's an interesting decision that the players are somewhat informed about, rather than being a gotcha.
The Apple Tree
The idea here is to have some sort of boon that looks like it might be replenishing, except it takes so long to replenish that the players will have to (unbeknownst to them) have to make a Golden Goose decision.
The Silver Apples
Deep in the forest is a clearing. Birds and chittering critters dart about, making a cacophony of noise that is almost maddening. In the center of the clearing is a small redleafed tree. The tree is a strange variant of an apple tree and bears 4 silver apples. If detect magic is cast, the apples and tree radiate magic.
The apples are indeed magical and have the effect of a cure serious wounds spell if eaten within 12 hours of being picked. After that time, they lose all magical properties. The apples regrow over a period of 12 months and, while on the tree, retain their potency for two months.
Fishy, fishy, fishy, fish
The pond in the cavern is filled with a dozen or so small fish. In the darkness, the fish radiate a strange blue glow. Should detect magic be cast, they do in fact radiate magic. This magic has the effect of granting water breathing for 20 to 40 minutes upon anyone consuming one of the fish. As long as at least 6 of the little fish remain in the pool, they lay eggs that hatch once every two months, creating an additional 2d6 fish each time. If the fish population drops below 6, this number is halved. If fewer than 3 fish are left in the pool, no more fish hatch, and the remaining fish die off within two months.
From both of these examples, the GM can teach a powerful lesson in conservation. The apples fail to function if taken but not used in time, and taking too many of the fish means that the resource no longer exists. A druid character would certainly understand the second situation.
I'm calling out that last sentence as at least a good thing, that the presence of a Druid would allow the party to be fully-informed of what the deal is.
Magic Pools and Potions (Is One Enough and Two Too Many?)
This is supposed to be a lesson in moderation.
Drink from the fountain once and you gain flight. Drink from it twice and it is poison.
Make a wish on the statue once and your attributes increase. Wish on it twice and it decreases your attributes instead.
Eat a certain herb and you're healed a little or lose a status effect. Eat too much of it and you suffer "an entirely horrible effect"
The author makes an alcohol and overdose analogy, and also a "pop rocks and coca-cola" analogy: if a character drinks two potions in quick succession, go to the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, look up the Potion Miscibility Table and inflict a bad effect on them because the two potions mixed in their stomach!
And we're right back to gotcha/Nethack-spoilers gameplay. This is exactly the kind of thing that turned me off from ever touching a shrine in the original Diablo I. While I could look up all of the effects and match them to the generic and vague names, it was too much work to bother doing that, and especially the ones that are only good for you if your stats/character status falls within a certain range.
Hiding in Plain Sight
This one is the gag from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: the Holy Grail is actually the plain-looking wooden cup, and the ogre's tattered, ratty, stinky bedsheet is a Cloak of Elvenkind. He mentions this as yet another way to deny the players from obtaining treasure if they're just not thorough enough.
I want to title this short paragraph "Burying the Lead". Besides the fact that very few players in TYOOL 2016 are going to miss the gimmick of a bunch of golden ornate objects next to an ordinary one, this is just another of those things that you, the GM, are completely in control of by dint of how the players can't know anything unless you tell them.
Well, gentle reader, I hope you have enjoyed this brief peek into my brain, and I hope you have a better understanding of how I think when I run a game. Certainly all of you reading this have similar tricks up your sleeve, all of which I would love to hear about. This sampling of a few ideas is at best an idea generator for all of you, and at worst a list of one-off things you can try in your home campaign.
I graciously hope that you have enjoyed this book, and that you will share your experiences and other dirty tricks (or applications of the general ideas presented here) with us and with the gaming community. More GMs using more dirty tricks creates more skilled players. More skilled players mean more skilled GMs, and the cycle should continue. Endless, mindless combat and rolling dice to determine everything does not a roleplaying game make. Interaction and careful thought by the GM and the players has created, at least for this GM, the most memorable times at a table I have ever had.
26 January 2014
As a final send-off, he gives us a "role-playing, not roll-playing!" good bye.
And that's the end of the book. It didn't sit right with me skimming through it and going through the introduction, and the close read-through did not improve my opinion of it any. It's a very antagonistic, very "cull the weak" style that may well have been in vogue 30 years ago, but just strikes me as mean-spirited and punishing today.
A lot of it is founded upon hiding essential information from the players, or making it so that they cannot learn it until they've paid some dire cost first, or exploiting the player-to-character knowledge gap to force the players to make decisions that the characters should honestly be more informed about considering they're supposed to be adventurers.
The second is perhaps forgivable to a point, but the first and latter approaches rob the players of agency because if a game is a series of interesting decisions, you cannot have one if you have any sort of background with which to make an informed choice about. While I have no doubt that there are people who enjoy playing his games, and that that sort of game can be enjoyable if played off well (as I mentioned, Dungeon Crawl Classics' level-0 funnel plays the killer dungeon trope to the hilt), this book isn't for me, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.