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 final part of the series, I’ll talk about how to handle death in your Dungeon World delve and how to manage “defy danger or die” effects. I’ll also discuss some strategies for rewarding players and characters that overcome the challenges your deathtrap dungeon presents.
Last Breath and Character Death
If designed and run correctly, your deathtrap dungeon should be killing characters at a steady pace. Luckily, unlike many other fantasy adventure systems, Dungeon World gives the characters a bit of a cushion against death via the last breath move. Don’t afraid to strike hard against the party – half the time, they’ll make their last breath roll and be back in action (if not a little beat up).
Outside of very special circumstances (see below), you shouldn’t try to circumvent last breath. Instead, embrace last breath scenes as an opportunity to reinforce the theme of your dungeon and foreshadow dangers to come.
If a character does die, parley it into an opportunity to make the dungeon itself more dangerous. At the same time, character death should not remove a player from the game. Allow the deceased to jump in with a new character or, at the very least, play a voice that can help the others strategize or solve of puzzles.
The Grim World supplement for Dungeon World and Fate Core can further make death in your delves interesting through the introduction of death moves: special powers that activate when a character passes on to the afterlife. Besides being exciting in their own right, death moves can help ease the sting of losing a character by giving them one last chance to make an impact on the adventure.
According to lore, the Tomb of Horrors exists to lure powerful souls to close proximity with the demi-lich Acererak so that he might drain them and use their spirit energy to become a god. In my conversion, Acererak appears to dying characters when they take their last breath. If they manage to regain consciousness, they carry with them a vision of a danger to come later in the Tomb. However, if the character perishes, Acererak reaves their soul, and another grim portent comes closer to passing.
Defy Danger or Die
“Save-or-die” has long been a controversial aspect of tabletop RPGs, and this article will not make any remarks on that debate. It should go without saying that it’s up to a GM and their players to decide to what extent they’re comfortable with instant-death effects in their game.
If you opt to port save-or-die to Dungeon World, the easiest method is to kill a character as a hard move after they fail a defy danger roll (or another roll should the fictional circumstances permit). Depending on your GMing style, you might reserve defy danger or die effects to only those situations where the players have already made a series of mistakes, incurred several failures, or ignored a number of soft moves made against them.
Generally, characters will get to make a last breath move if slain by an instant-death effect. However, if you’re feeling especially cruel or want to highlight the exceptional danger of a trap or hazard, you might rule that a particular instant-kill result ignores last breath entirely. Do this very rarely and telegraph it to the players when possible.
The first hallway in the Tomb of Horrors has a number of traps that instantly slay their victims. The first – poison spikes at the bottom of a pit – only kill a character after they’ve lost their grip on the edge of the pit and failed a defy danger roll to avoid falling onto the spikes. If a character succumbs to the poison, they still make their last breath move.
However, the sphere of annihilation in the mouth of the green devil face is another matter entirely. A character that fails to avoid such an iconic danger is reduced to dust immediately – there’s no chance in the hells they’re coming back for more.
Bond with Death
Just as characters have a bond with one another that affects certain rolls (such as aid or interfere), you might as a GM declare that a character has earned a point of bond with death itself. This bond represents the extent to which a character has survived the impossible or evaded certain death – it’s only a matter of time before fate catches up with them.
Each time a character rolls a 7+ on a last breath check, increase their bond with death by 1 point. You might do the same the first time a character is wounded by an exceptionally powerful trap, curse, or monster.
There’s no single way to leverage bond with death in your deathtrap dungeons. You might design custom moves that ask characters to make rolls that subtract their bond with death. You could have characters subtract their bond with death each time they make a last breath roll. In all cases, bond with death should be a slowly escalating value that ratchets up tension throughout the adventure.
If you want to surprise your players, try including one or two situations in your deathtrap dungeon where a high bond with death is beneficial, rather than harmful. For example, the blighted tomb of a death god avatar might ward off those who try to enter unless they roll+bond with death and get a high enough result.
As described by one of the new GM principles introduced in part one, it’s crucial that your deathtrap dungeon offer the characters rewards worthy of the trouble they must endure to find them. Dungeon World already pushes GMs in this direction by encouraging them to create magic treasure that ties into the dungeon’s fiction and offers benefits beyond “mundane” stat bonuses.
When designing and placing treasure in your deathtrap dungeon, spend as much effort making them fantastic, over-the-top, and powerful as you do with your traps and your monsters (if not more so). Rewards in a deathtrap dungeon world should be memorable, evocative elements that give the party a marked edge over a specific obstacle elsewhere in the dungeon.
Place a variety of treasures that are attractive to and usable by multiple classes and races. Embrace alternative rewards to liven up your deathtrap dungeon, including arcane enchantments, divine boons, hirelings, moves from other classes, extra levels – anything to set your hoards apart from what the players might find in more vanilla dungeon settings.
Don’t be conservative with the power of your dungeon’s treasure, especially in the context of a mini-campaign or one-shot (in which many deathtrap dungeon adventures are played). When the party overcomes a legion of monsters and a grid of instant-kill traps, the loot they claim should more than make up for the blood and tears.
The artifact weapons in Black Plume Mountain are great examples of rewards worthy of the deathtrap dungeon. Each is imbued with the power of a deity that grants their wielder an array of game-changing abilities both numeric and narrative. In addition, each artifact weapon is designed to give the party the advantage over one of the other dungeon lords in the mountain. If all three weapons are assembled, the characters’ chance of defeating Dragotha increases as well.
The advice presented in this article series is intended to give you a place to start when designing and running deathtrap dungeons using the Dungeon World rules set. While Dungeon World is excellent for running deadly delves, it’s hardly the only system with which the genre works well. If you opt to run adventures like the Tomb of Horrors using 13th Age or the upcoming edition of D&D, my hope is that you’ll find many of the tips and techniques I’ve shared adaptable to those games.
In the end, what’s important is that the deathtrap dungeon is kept alive, and that GMs and players alike continue to explore their corridors in a wide variety of settings and systems.