Monday, August 22, 2011

The Most Disturbing Room

It's the first room of the dungeon...

The usual stone--weathered but basically smooth. Exits wherever you need exits to be.

In the center of the room are three pedestals, made from the same rock as the room. Contents:

On the extreme right, in a small pot, an orchid.

In the center, a goblet, with red wine.

On the left, cake.

This room just freaks the PCs out. Every time. I've run it four times and nobody knows what to do here. You could write the whole rest of the dungeon in the time it takes the PCs to agree on what to do here in Room 1.

What do the flower and the wine and the cake do? It hardly matters--you're a DM, you can make something up if you want to use this room. The real effect is done as soon as you describe the room.

Another thing I notice about this room--thinking about it now--is it is, to me, a very D&D room.

What I mean is, like, though I love Warhammer aesthetics--the skull-crushing and all that--I love how they exploit the metalness latent in D&D that D&D's first creators weren't metal enough to recognize (but its young fans were)--but you wouldn't expect to see a room like this in a Warhammer FRP game. Maybe not consciously, but you just wouldn't put it in. (Probably, yes, I know you had this DM once who...but you get my point.)

Early D&D had a stamp of...not "whimsical", exactly, because "whimsical" sucks (and D&D had sucky whimsy sometimes too, and it was a different thing) had a stamp of...I guess I'd call it a sort of uncategorizeably puzzly weirdness. Probably left to it by Jack Vance and fairy tales (and Lewis Carroll, who left a Jabberwock for early Warhammer). In Warhammer (especially later) the weirdness was Chaos and Chaos would kill you sooner or later--in other words, the awesome metalness of Warhammer--the certainty and "focus" of its aesthetic direction--can make it predictable. The same goes for other "focused" medieval variants--Ars Magica. If you walked into a dungeon and saw a cake and a goblet and an orchid in an Ars Magica game you wouldn't bat an eye. It wouldn't be fun, it'd be some standard enchanted stuff.

So that's a nice thing about D&D's lack of focus--you walk into a room and you never know whether you're going to get Warhammer or Ars Magica. And is the wine on a pressure plate that puts a spike through your eye or is it a gift from the fairies or does it make you grow too big to fit through the door or does it just make you drunk?

In a horror game, the 3 pedestal room would be ominous, because being in a horror game makes everything ominous. But knowing you're in D&D has a subtler effect--it is, simply, disturbing. It's just not quite right. But it might be something. Maybe. Hmmm... Maybe we should... mmmm, I don't know...


  1. Perfect; just as I'm building a small dungeon. This is now going in it, and we'll see how it freaks my lot out...

    I find that putting a statue in a room has a similar effect, as they are never sure whether it is just a statue, an animated one, or a trap.

  2. I think stuff like this is an important part of dungeon design, but I find it hard to properly place. In a megadungeon, or any large mythical-type dungeon, it's easy - so long as it's placed sparingly, it does just what it's supposed to and works wonders on the mood.
    In a "theme" dungeon, though, the players have certain expectations. If they're exploring an ancient crypt, and they find the room above, they're going to expect the food to be poison, or it's actually rotted and filled with maggots, or something. If they're in an elvish palace, they'll be expecting magic. They might not know exactly what the effect is, and they might well be wrong, but that doesn't matter - they never achieve the same level of anxiety-filled mystery as they do when encountering the room completely without context.

    I guess it ties back to that post you made a while ago about "Weird" as a sort of superposition between humour and horror. In this case, as long as they don't know what the room is, it might just as well be anything, and that feeling of slightly anxious, slightly disturbing strangeness is maintained. As soon as they get a good idea of whether it's harmless, deadly, or useful, that feeling collapses, and it becomes just something to be ignored, avoided or exploited.

  3. I was going to say this seems like a variant of the 'figs & the mice' torture scenario:

    "Bring me six figs & three mice!" says the interrogator, at which point the subject breaks & tells all. The rookie says "what were you going to do with the figs & the mice?" & then the interrogator says "it doesn't matter what I was going to do, it was what the subject imagined I was going to do."

    Except then I tried to google for the actual scenario, & maybe it was just from Wheel of Time? I must have read it in my early teens & just incorporated it as a trope of the genre, but I guess that was just me. Though now that I think about it, didn't Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser do something similar?


    The fact that the cake, orchid & wine could be ANYTHING is part of the allure, but you are right there is some genre awareness that is really hard to pin down. Partially I think it has to do with the intrusion of the game element-- the inclusion of ANY item has the effect of a camera doing a close up shot on Checkov's gun. "Oh the DM described this guy, he must be important."

  4. All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe...

  5. Im really big into this unusual, "what's this for" type stuff right now too. My PC's hate it when I tell them they have found a bag of teeth and what looks like kidney stones from a mammoth. The less description the better.
    The downside here is that if over used, it can make the PC's very impulsive, and turn something intended to confuse and stall into just another weird thing that got lost in kicking down the door. My group is just as likely to spend an hour stalled out here while they decide what to do as they are to quickly do stuff without thinking at all.

    "Sweet I'm eating the cake!"
    "Is the Orchid purple? I want to take it if it's purple."
    "I'll pour the wine on the orchid, that'll make it purple"

    I almost want to have two sets of outcomes when i throw a curveball like this, one for if they spend a long time (and thusly deserve some cool result) and one for if they just mess around and suffer dire consequences, especially if they happen days later

  6. I threw in a random 'solve this puzzle to gain access through this well' scenario for my players last week. I threw in an overturned cracked bucket in the room just to help paint a picture and would you know they spent 20min pondering over the damn bucket. Why is it cracked? Should we make it whole? What if i touch the strange runes with the bucket? what if i put water in the bucket? I want to make an arcana check on the bucket.. guess what.. its a bucket.

  7. @DukeofOrange: I prefer not to switch stuff around after the fact, I feel it undermines the players' agency. They should be able to rely on reality being constant at least for the room they're standing in, if nowhere else. They probably wouldn't notice, but I would and I'm pedantic like that.

    Immediate death is my preferred consequence for gross lack of player caution - only if that's what's written in my notes, of course, not as a vengeful DM bolt out of the blue. Really, if a player eats a cake they found in a dungeon, they have no one to blame but themselves.

  8. Something else this makes me think of that might be worth sharing, is that strange, potentially dangerous situations like these are possibly the only way to convey a proper sense of wonder to players, in the way we feel wonder in real life. The inside of Gaudi's cathedral is amazing, but if you describe that architecture in a dungeon it won't merit a second glance. Sure, it'll help the players build up a neat picture in their heads, but it's just words. It's not like they're going to stand around gawping at the view.

    But if you put a room full of butterflies in the dungeon, that'll cause wonder. The players have to think about it. Are they ordinary butterflies that somehow ended up underground? Do they have poison dust on their wings, and touching one is instant death? Are they fairies? They'll hypothesise and investigate and ask for descriptions and detail. They'll wonder. When they move on, that room will stick in their minds, in a way that the Gaudi-inspired architecture you described earlier won't.

  9. Early D&D had a stamp of... I guess I'd call it a sort of uncategorizeably puzzly weirdness.

    I think you've got your finger close to the mark here. I like this Alice in Underland aspect of D&D (I'm surprised Lewis Carroll didn't make it on Gygax's Appendix N). For me, the quality also recalls the Arabian Nights... if memory serves, there are actually a couple stories amongst the 1001 where the wandering protagonist discovers a set of pedestals in a chamber with random common objects on them. This Marcel Duchamp-esque exhibition space usually ends up being a mirage set up by a djinn...

  10. @John: Nice. I think you are right, this is as close as we'll get to visual wonder. The wonder of odd juxtaposition.

    @Zak: I'd be interested in your definition of whimsy, is it just about motive? The way folks don't like inauthentic blues? Or is it about not taking the game as serious as it merits? I get the sense you mean something else.

  11. I wonder if that room would fit in LotFP. My gut tells me no for the reasons John cited. There, you probably are better leaving it alone, unless you MUST interact with it. But then, the wonder is replaced with something else.

    Yeah, I guess this is the funhouse element, and when D&D starts developing a logic (or theme), these kind of rooms stop working. Does this mean that funhouse is what D&D does and does best?

  12. I don't think it's limited to funhouse dungeons. Actually, I think the effect is mostly lost in a funhouse, where it becomes just another puzzle rather than mystery or source of wonder. For the best effect, I think a room like this should be in more-or-less "normal" dungeon surroundings, and either have a legitimate reason for existing - but crucially, one which the players have no way of knowing when they encounter it - or else be almost plausible, with doubt + "weird dungeon energies" taking care of suspension of disbelief. Obviously, that's a lot easier with natural features or ancient monuments than with Zak's cake and flowers, but what's life without challenge?

  13. 'The Most Disturbing Room' is a concept I always feel is lost on a lot of new players of D&D.

    Running Type 4 D&D Encounters and other games, I've tried to introduce these kinds of game elements (the bizarre, mysterious, and strange things where the imagination of the players does more than any description from me), and it almost always falls on deaf ears and uninterested minds.

    Which sucks.

  14. @Kiel - Like Zak said, the concept doesn't translate well outside of pre '82 D&D. Certain tropes and expectations skew the experience. Type 4 D&D players expect to be able to roll a die to figure out the puzzle. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different style of play.

    Having experienced this puzzle personally with Zak, I can attest to how fucked up it is to encounter it as a player. I was too freaked out to touch any of it. In fact, I can't remember if anyone in our party touched any of it.

    Now, if the puzzle was deeper in the dungeon in a room with only on exit, I would have been much more likely to experiment.

  15. Disturbing rooms like this often need an even more disturbing payoff if players actually devote time to them.

    I did something similar with a beautiful gem on a pedestal. The players checked for traps, knocked it off onto the floor... until finally someone had the guts to just pick it up. Suddenly, the gem cracked and sprouted crystaline legs, mandibles and wings and scurried up the PCs arm sreaming "warm yummies, warm yummies!" Oh, and hundreds of other jeweled bugs came swarming in through every crack and crevice in the room.

    The screams from the players were sooo worth it.

  16. So that's a nice thing about D&D's lack of focus--you walk into a room and you never know whether you're going to get Warhammer or Ars Magica.

    This stands alongside Jeff's "You pay Gandalf, I play Conan, together we fight Dracula" as a perfect summation of D&D's strengths.

  17. Obligatory Eddie Izzard link

    (I really does have something to do with the disturbing room, I promise.)

  18. I thought the most disturbing room has the PC's mom in it.

  19. Whimsical is underrated. I like whimsical.

  20. I am totally going to be using this.

  21. Ok the warm yummies thing is going to give me nightmares.

  22. That's absolutely beautiful dungeon design. The possibilities are endless. Bravo.

  23. Oddly, this is exactly the sort of thing you might run across in a Harry Potter book - where it'll just be some kind of enchantment - and it's the sort of detail that makes me think HP is very, very 80s D&D.

    Also reminds me strongly of a bunch of Telecanter's set pieces, any of which would send me backing carefully out of the room.