Sunday, November 19, 2017

How Underworld Doors Hate Adventurers

Referee: "Roll an open doors check."
Bobby the Magic-User: "I got a 6!"
Referee: "The door remains steadfastly closed. Now what?"

Back in 2012, when I was first really introduced to the idea of the OSR, of the megadungeon, of the "dungeon as mythic underworld," when I first looked critically into the D&D B/X books I'd acquired by strange fortune some years earlier ... I remember stumbling over the "check" required simply to open a door.

"NORMAL DOORS: Doors in a dungeon are usually closed, and are often stuck or locked. A lock must usually be picked by a thief. An unlocked door must be forced open to pass through it. To force open a door, roll 1d6; a result of 1 or 2 (on 1d6) means that the door is forced open. The roll should be adjusted by a character's Strength score adjustment. The number needed to open a door can never be less than 1 nor greater than 1-5." ("Part 4: The Adventure," Dungeons and Dragons Basic Rulebook, edited by Tom Moldvay, 1981 version, page B21)

Following the sense of the "dungeon as mythic underworld" (an essay I read back then ... Save Versus All Wands has excerpted parts that I remember, particularly about doors, here), I was willing to accept that doors were strangely unrelenting to characters attempting to explore the underworld. Perhaps there was a sense of the faerie otherworld magic about them, or whatever, but I could see the gaming applicability too--what if the players stumbled onto a nest of trolls and had to get out fast, and yet the door wouldn't yield to their "ministrations"?! That seemed like gaming gold, of terrified players facing a real horror ...

And yet, at the table, it never worked out that way.

First, despite the fact that I had envisioned a way to make checks like that work, that scenario never developed. The first entrants into my megadungeon then ("the Catacombs") either prudently spiked the doors, or got themselves quickly killed by the wereleopards lurking in the shadows.

Secondly, that very vision requires that door checks be allowed to be repeated; and when the assumption is that repeated attempts are allowable, it became dreadfully frustrating to force players to roll dice for a door, round after round, until they finally forced it open.

Ultimately, the combination of a desire to require "door checks" but a frustration with repeat checks created enough friction that I came up with a rationale--in my game, when players open a door, they roll a door check; but that check is not representing the physical opening of the door--that happens regardless--rather, success indicates that the character opens the door quietly enough to chance surprise on anything on the other side; and failure indicates that the characters made such noise opening the door that anything on the other side is aware of their presence. (This works out well with "hear noise" checks too, where savvy players who listen are less likely to be surprised ...)

So that's how open door checks work in my games:
1-2 opened quietly--may surprise enemies on the other side on a 1 or 2 on a d6
3-6 opened noisily--enemies on the other side are not surprised
(+/-) according to Strength
(And because of my descriptions of these I've had two characters named for these checks in my games--Sturge Doorbane, a brawny 18 STR Dwarf, and Morphumax Doorscraper, also a brawny 17? STR Dwarf ... curious that both were dwarves!)


And then I finally got to play in Jeff's Vaults of Vyzor some few months ago (Session #16), and Jeff Rients faithfully has characters make open door checks. But what was novel to me--and I'm guessing is actually the intent of the rules, and so not novel to D&D!--is that if characters can't open a door, they just can't for that session (at least, that's how it seemed to me while playing with him as referee).

Which makes so much sense--just like how with thief rules, if a thief fails to pick a certain lock, he cannot try again until he gains a level (forcing the party to come up with another means of opening the lock ...).

This channels player exploration in literally random ways (i.e. where they can go is determined by a random roll when presented with a door); it also preserves the rule and the horror ("We can't get out ... We can't get out ..." as the annals of Moria described), without forcing any tedium on the play of the game.

All of which is to say ... rules require interpretation. I ran my game in 2012 without anything but the words on the page (both the B/X rulebooks I had, as well as the words on the internet pages of various blogs)--but without any actual teacher to show me his or her way. I'm going to keep my way--it's too ingrained for me anymore--but I can appreciate and enjoy other ways of interpreting the rules.

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