In this 3-part article series, I’ll share some of my tips for running deathtrap dungeons using the Dungeon World roleplaying game. By drawing on the lessons of my recent deathtrap dungeon campaign, Black Plume Mountain, and by using my conversion of the Tomb of Horrors as a guide, I hope to give you the tools to design and run exciting, dynamic, and brutal delves.
In this part of the series, I’ll talk about how to create monsters, traps, and puzzles for your deathtrap dungeons in a way that embraces Dungeon World’s mechanics and philosophy. In addition, I’ll explain why hard moves are the most important part of your deathtrap dungeon toolkit, and present a list of 20 hard moves you can use in your game tonight.
As I’d written in part one of this series, monsters in a deathtrap dungeon are usually few in number, so it’s crucial that they stand out in both vividness and viciousness. Use the following techniques in conjunction with one another to augment your deathtrap dungeon’s guardians.
Increase HP and Damage: The easiest way to make monsters more fearsome in Dungeon World is to increase their hit points and damage dice. When designing or running monsters that fight alone or in pairs, try multiplying HP by 1.5 and increase the damage die by one step (up to a maximum of d20). For “boss” monsters that fight alone, multiply HP by 3, and increase the damage die by 2 steps (up to a maximum of d20). Note that, while this is an easy way to make your monsters deadlier, the additional advice below earns more mileage when it comes to making truly heinous foes and can be effective even if you choose not to bump a monster’s stats.
Make Multiple Hard Moves: Whenever a monster is used to make a hard move against the players (such as after a failed hack and slash attempt), consider making more than one hard move. Monsters that fight alone or in small groups should make 2 hard moves; especially iconic monsters should make 3 or more. Use the additional hard moves to showcase other powers or attacks your monster has, rather than piling on with the same effect. Alternatively, your monster might make only a single hard move, but the dungeon itself follows up with a hard move of its own against the players via a trap or hazard (see below).
Narrative Harms: “The fiction” is a key element of Dungeon World, and effects that alter it against the players are both potent and frightening. Devise moves for your monsters that impose purely narrative harms on a character or twist the story against them. Not only does this make your monsters more dangerous – it also ties them more closely to the theme of your dungeon and presents the players with challenges that must be overcome with interesting storytelling.
Zone Defense: Don’t presume that the characters will always be in a position to make hack and slash or volley moves against your monsters. If you want to increase the challenge to the players, create circumstances in the fiction that require the characters to ‘get into position’ or overcome a dangerous obstacle before being allowed to make attacks directly.
Front Relationships: Round out the monsters in your deathtrap dungeon by tying them in concrete ways to its fronts. You don’t need to make every monster in the dungeon a mastermind, but they all should in some way play a part in the machinations of the dungeon lord or her rivals.
When converting the Tomb of Horrors to Dungeon World, the first monster I designed was the four-armed gargoyle near the entrance hall. I used the guidelines in the Dungeon World rulebook to stat up the monster from scratch. Because it’s a threat that fights alone, I multiplied its HP by 1.5 and increased its damage die by one step. I noted that it makes 2 hard moves, gave it a rending power that slices apart armor, and added a curse to its claw attack that prevents those wounded by it from entering the Chapel without a sacrifice. Finally, I wrote that the gargoyle was a statue that originally stood outside the first church Acererak corrupted as a lich. Acererak animated the statue to guard the door of his Tomb, just as it did in the past.
Traps and Tricks
Traps are the dreaded namesake of the deathtrap dungeon genre. By heeding the advice below, you’ll be better able to demonstrate to players why that’s the case.
Assume Your Traps Will Be Found: The truth is, in Dungeon World, it’s very easy for thieves to find hidden traps – with certain advanced moves, it’s often a sure thing. Other classes can also unearth traps with little trouble. There’s no harm in hiding your traps, but be sure to design them so that they remain interesting and threating even after being discovered. Traps that attack alongside monsters in combat or strike as punishment for incorrectly solving a puzzle are great examples of such traps.
Limit Trap Expert to Once Per Room: If you’re finding that the thief is steamrolling through your traps and tricks by spamming the trap expert move, try limiting the use of this move to once per room (the first attempt representing the thief’s ‘best effort’). If you’re feeling generous as a GM, you might allow the thief to use the move again if circumstances in the area change or if enough time has passed.
Assume Your Traps Will Be Disabled: Just as you should assume your traps will be found, assume in Dungeon World that your traps will be disabled as well. Like monsters, find ways in the fiction to prevent characters from being able to neutralize traps directly. Instead, force them to defy a danger or accomplish some other task before being allowed to make a disabling move against a trap itself.
Spawn New Traps as a Hard Move: Just because a trap isn’t in your notes doesn’t mean it isn’t waiting for the characters to happen upon it. When you have an opportunity to make a hard move, reveal new traps or hint at their existence. Doing so keeps the players tense and reinforces the treacherous, unpredictable nature of your deathtrap dungeon that, with a malign intelligence, will alter itself in order to slay intruders. Be careful, though: if the thief feels like you’re circumventing the trap expert move too much, use this tactic less often.
Enhance or Advance the Fiction: Be on the lookout for ways you can promote your deathtrap dungeon’s story through traps. Maybe the remains and diary of the dungeon lord’s former lover lay at the bottom of the pit the fighter just tumbled into. Perhaps the rolling boulder trap smashes open the wall to reveal a hidden chamber depicting the dungeon’s original, covered-up purpose.
Increased Damage, Multiple Hard Moves, Narrative Effects, Front Relationships: Like monsters, you can elevate your traps by increasing their damage, making multiple hard moves, layering on narrative effects, and tying them to the deathtrap dungeon’s fronts.
In part one of this series, the new and revisited GM principles discussed ways in which puzzles and other tests of player knowledge could be handled in Dungeon World. The advice below elaborates on those principles.
Don’t Worry About Realism: Like monsters and traps, puzzles should be rooted in the deathtrap dungeon’s fiction. However, don’t become overly concerned with finding ways for your puzzles to make logical sense. In the deathtrap dungeon genre, puzzles exist merely to test and entertain the players. You’re building a dark age obstacle course for gamers who want a particular challenge, not a simulated ecology that could hold up to scientific scrutiny.
Embrace Clue-Generating Moves: In Dungeon World, every character has one or more moves they can use to discover or invent knowledge about the world. When designing or running puzzles in your deathtrap dungeon, assume that the players will be able to ‘divine’ some or all of the clues to solving your puzzle. Don’t look for ways to shut this down, as these moves are much of the fun of Dungeon World. Instead, you should create puzzles with multiple solutions or many partial clues that can be gathered by a variety of classes.
Fail Forward: This is good advice for puzzles in any roleplaying game, but it’s especially important to heed in Dungeon World, which emphasizes failing forward. Never let the players’ inability to solve a puzzle halt the story. Rather, failure should thrust the fiction onto a different, much more perilous track.
Increased Damage, Multiple Hard Moves, Narrative Effects, Front Relationships: You know the drill. When it comes to the fiction, try and thread your dungeon’s history or theme through a puzzle’s clues and solutions.
In Black Plume Mountain, the players encountered an optional obelisk puzzle in which they had to arrange a set of demon skulls, bottom to top, in order of hierarchy. While the puzzle itself required the players to leverage their knowledge of D&D demon trivia, each player had an opportunity to use a move to glean as many clues as they could about demon hierarchy before committing to a solution.
Dungeon World is a mechanically-light game that, even with the adjustments presented in this article, has a fairly narrow band of numeric values for things like ability scores, hit points, and damage. Furthermore, Dungeon World has far fewer rules upon which challenges can be hooked – fewer attributes, fewer conditions, fewer combat maneuvers, and fewer class abilities.
However, Dungeon World does provide deathtrap dungeon GMs with an effective, versatile, and adaptive means of threatening characters and ratcheting up the challenge – the hard move. Hard moves are your best tool as a deathtrap dungeon GM. You can use them at practically any time, in any situation, and as often as you like, all without the restriction that comes from more mechanical or prescribed effects.
If you feel like the players are having too easy of a time, there’s a solution: make more hard moves. Conversely, if you feel like you’re coming on too strong, you always have a painless out: use fewer hard moves, or use soft moves instead.
If you’re looking for ways to make your deathtrap dungeon more oppressive, sinister, and lethal in both reality and the players’ imagination, leverage hard moves. Make them often, make them in clusters, and make them evocative of your deathtrap dungeon’s atmosphere and theme.
Example Deathtrap Dungeon Hard Moves
Below are 20 hard moves you can use while running a deathtrap dungeon with Dungeon World. These hard moves are designed to trigger off common situations that call for a hard move and are easily adaptable to any dungeon setting.
- A stray attack causes a section of wall to crumble away, revealing a peeling mural. The mural depicts one of the character’s ancestors standing among the dungeon lord’s original advisors. The mural is not an illusion or trick.
- A misstep causes two pit traps to open: one that swallows a character, and another that disgorges a powerful monster appropriate for the environment that had been trapped by a previous party.
- Suddenly, all nearby plants wilt, and a potion the party is carrying spoils and turns to murky sludge. This heralds the approach of a powerful demon or undead.
- A previously undetected spell turret trap (a statue, a face in the wall, a gem) absorbs a failed spell and casts it, repeatedly, for the next several moments.
- A segment of the ceiling or walls begins to slide, separating the characters. Projectiles appropriate for the environment begin to volley out of holes in the segment.
- A character steps on a previously hidden pressure plate that reveals a keyhole in the wall. The keyhole is bathed in an energy cloud appropriate for the environment, and fires arcs of this energy at nearby characters. If the lock is picked, the wall slides open to reveal treasure.
- A magic mouth appears on a prominent feature of the chamber. It speaks a power word that only harms members of a specific race (elves, dwarves, etc.).
- In the midst of conflict, a character accidentally speaks a command word that temporarily reveals a trapped dais displaying a relic.
- The casting of a spell triggers a force cage or other magical snare to immobilize one of the characters. The ceiling above the trapped character begins to descend.
- A character failing to defy danger smears a rune that causes a trap to duplicate itself before becoming mobile and sentient.
- A magic item in use by one of the characters reveals itself to be intelligent and cursed. Its first action is to hinder the party; its second is to claim another cursed item is among the characters.
- The characters’ exploration wakes a powerful monster several chambers away. Its distinctive waking roar causes a trap to activate in the current room.
- An unknown timer has elapsed, causing a nearby trap to double its damage or rate of attack.
- A previously undetected spell trap momentarily turns one character’s heavy armor into a swarm of creatures appropriate for the environment (snakes, scarabs, clockwork mosquitos, ice spiders).
- Reacting to a failed disabling attempt, a trap sprouts a new means to defend itself related to its method of attack.
- A natural hazard appropriate for the environment bursts into the area that separates the party from an object they need to reach.
- Finally sensing the presence of a particular race or class of character, a previously hidden statue rises into view bearing a nefarious holy symbol. The statue then swivels to face characters of the offending race or class and attempts to “turn” them.
- A lamia barbarian trapped in the dungeon forms from a swarm of insects in the walls and demands one of the party’s magic items, claiming it to be the key to her escape. If the characters refuse, she will take it by force.
- A stray attack shatters a previously hidden decorative gem. A mist pours from the broken gem and forms into a temporary portal to a safe place. A monster or trap stands between the party and this portal.
- A misstep triggers a previously undetected magic trap that sears a divine brand onto one of the characters. Its purpose or effect is unknown.
In the third and final article in this series, I’ll talk about how to handle death in your Dungeon World adventures and how to reward those who make it out of your deathtrap dungeon alive.