Thursday, 6 May 2010

Fixing Deathtrap Dungeon

The point of last week's post about Deathtrap Dungeon was that, essentially, I really want to like the idea (and therefore steal/reuse it) but can't get my head around the complete lack of logic behind it.

The idea seems fantastic. It's difficult to get more grim and grisly than a killer dungeon designed to be near impossible and then to run a whole happy carnival fair around the idea as adventurers, clearly a mix of the desperate, deluded and arrogantly confident, actually volunteer to have a go. It's very far removed from the Old Skool "minimize risk as much as possible" survival maxim and there's something very perverted about the concept - let's all have a disco to celebrate the fact that you probably aren't coming back because you are a blood sacrifice to this town's economic wellbeing. And you're not bothered by that because you think you'll get away with it.

It has such a contempt and lack of respect for human life that it begs to be used in an RPG. Under the skin of what appears to be a flimsy excuse for a funhouse dungeon is something really quite horrible. I described it last week as a snuff version of a fairground sideshow and I think that sums it up quite well. Don't forget, in the 1980s this was a children's book.

So how can we use it without great leaps of logic being required?

Magical Scrying

The obvious idea (touched upon in the comments section last week) is that some form of magical handwavium exists behind the scenes, carrying live feeds out to an audience via a series of hidden Palantir and probably large white sheets or whitewashed walls. Perhaps even a informal straw poll allows the dungeon to be tweaked according to audience wishes ("Who wants Tinderbeard the Dwarf to face the Wall of Spikes?" - cheers and whoops - "Who wants the Headhunter unleashed?" - more cheers and whoops).

The problem with this is that we've essentially released CCTV and Cable television into fantasyland. If the whole setup is unique then it won't last long being used in a provincial town for entertainment purposes when the benefits of owning the planet's sole CCTV and remote scrying system are so blatant that every overlord, good and evil, will be making plans to sack Fang and acquire the magical technology for his own purposes. It just isn't going to stay where it is when something of this potential power is being used for purely trivial purposes.

If it's not unique then the effects of releasing CCTV into fantasyland will be dramatic and everyone in power will have one. Then we'll have to accept a campaign settings with Elves and Dwarfs and Undead and Dungeons and Wizards and Live Television. This isn't a goer.


I did toy with the idea of the dungeon being "open-topped" and covered by grilles. This would then see contestants enter the Trial of Champions underneath the streets of Fang whilst the mob peer down through cast-iron grilles offering advice, encouragement, abuse, body fluids and rubbish. The mob would rush along streets and through cellars following the progress of their favourite.

This is a neat idea but falls over because clearly nothing can now be a surprise to the contestants. Turn up the previous year, watch the event, take notes and be reasonably prepared for next year. Throw this at your PCs and they will be doing everything in their power to sneak into the dungeon before the event and start rigging things and making maps. This won't fly.

Time Limit

Perhaps a time limit is set upon the dungeon. Get through the exit portal before sunset or you will be sealed in forever as a slave of the dungeon operators.

This could work quite well as all crowd watches the adventurers go in then all return at sunset to see Who Will Survive And What Will Be Left Of Them? This avoids the problem of the crowd that waits for something to not happen and means the Trial of Champions provides the opening act and possible finale of a day of serious drinking. This would work.


Another idea would be for the crowd to hang around and be informed of what is happening. We could erect a flagpole for each entrant with their own colour-coded flag. This flag is then raised as the adventurer gets past certain areas of the dungeon and removed when they succumb to the hazards. Perhaps each movement of flag is announced with shouting by the town crier ("Tinderbeard the Dwarf has passed the Gate of Flame.", "Thunderthyghs the Amazon has fallen to the Chestrap Beast" etc., etc.)

The crowd will then hang around watching the flags inch up either heading home when the flags are all removed or get excited and rush to the exit as a flag gets closer and closer to the top of it's pole. Perhaps if everyone fails "early doors", the Master of Ceremonies doesn't let on and keeps sneaking the flags upwards just to keep everyone in the right party mood and make them hang around spending money.

Isn't this all a bit poor for spectator sport and surely people won't put up with that?

Well, it's not really that unlikely. In 1892 West Bromwich Albion played Aston Villa in the F.A. Cup final at The Oval. Hundreds of Albion fans spent the afternoon congregating around the telegraph office at Smethwick, their sole means of finding out what had happened meant waiting for the telegram clerk to transpose the morse message coming down the lines shortly after the final whistle. He scribbled down the words "Albion 3 Villa 0" on a telegram sheet (which is still extant) and displayed it to a waiting crowd. (Something similar had probably happened in 1887 at the previous Albion/Villa Cup Final but we lost that one 2-0 so it isn't as famous a result in the Black Country).

If this is how Victorian football supporters followed their teams when playing away from home, I'm sure that fantasyland inhabitants would be happy with similar limited information.


  1. That's a great idea actually. And I'm sure that there would be troops of bards willing to act out dramatic reenactments of the events happening in the dungeon, as relayed by the one or two wizards that are scrying on the events.

  2. Then we'll have to accept a campaign settings with Elves and Dwarfs and Undead and Dungeons and Wizards and Live Television. This isn't a goer.
    Blood Bowl! Blood Bowl! Bloody bloody Blood Bowl!

    I don't mind the grill idea, as it seems very WFRPey to have spectators pouring filth, both verbal and actual, on the adventurers below. I'm not sure the problem you identify regarding spoilers and pre-planning would come up either; they could just change the layout of the thing every years, an idea which is supported in the books, as I recall, and have the viewing grills covered and locked until the big day.

    Then again, I also like the idea of the delayed commentary, although you've got to explain how the commentators know what's going on. I'd suggest using observers, street urchins probably, who watch the events through secret peepholes, then sneak out of the dungeon to report to John McCririck-style figures standing at the aforementioned flagpoles.

    One of the best things about the whole Deathtrap Dungeon idea is that by running a game about people taking part in a game in which they have to clear a dungeon, you can pretend to be all clever and storygamey while all the time you're actually taking the piss.

  3. I really like the idea of spectators being able to watch from overhead and hurl abuse and random junk - it seems like what Renaissance spectators would really enjoy. It'd also give the thing an interactive aspect, since the crowds affect the PCs' morale, but the PCs have a chance to affect the crowd by putting on a good show (CHA rolls?), which plays back into their morale.

    I'd been thinking that maybe the people running the show can charge admissions to the areas over successive chunks of the dungeon. Plenty of people can afford to watch the outermost areas, but only nobles and some really well-off merchants can afford alcohol *and* watching the innermost rooms. Since that select group isn't very likely to come back and "do" the dungeon themselves, maybe the proprietors would think that worth the risk.