Set Dressing and Random Rolls

I’ve read through the rest of the A-series modules, and intend to post about each in turn.  One thing I’ve noticed though is that they really make every room count.  Each one contains some kind of puzzle or interesting encounter, and none skimp on the set dressings.  At our last game I realized just how important the latter is.

The party is exploring Matt Finch’s Tomb of the Iron God, which as usual for pre-written material I just dumped into my campaign with no thought of it’s purpose and it has since become a very integrated and interesting to the story of the world.  The second level contains a lot of seemingly empty rooms, some with encounters, but most riddled with horizontal alcoves containing dead remains.  This is OK, but I wish there was a little more in each room.  Take for example the following room, which also includes a pit trap:

As is typical in these retro-old-school modules, there’s a fair number of markings like this that only say “pit trap”.  The standard interpretation is 1-in-6 chance per person of triggering, 1d6 falling damage for anyone who falls in.  Of course once it’s tripped the party always wants to know what the mechanism is like, is there a lip around the edge, etc.  I’ve gotten a bit bored with the standard trap, so I’ve started interpreting some of them differently.  In this case, I decided it was just a natural sink hole, not too deep and only d3 damage, but requiring a d20 roll under dex to make it out, failure indicating that climbing attempts just pull more dirt down the sides into the pit.

So here it is in this 100′ long, 20′ wide corridor with several exits and lots of those burial alcoves.  The party spreads out to search all the alcoves with maximum efficiency.  Even so it’s going to take them 3 turns to cover the entire place, which means wandering monster checks.  I roll some dice and what do you know, a gelatinous cube shows up at the exact same time as one of the party members finds the trap the hard way.  I roll to see which entrance the cube comes from, and it’s the bottom left, right across from the pit.

So we roll initiative and go into combat rounds.  The player who was closest to the cube and got hit by its surprise attack saved against the paralysis.  Turns out this is the same player who previously lost an arm to a gelatinous cube, and as such he decided to put as much space between himself and the thing as possible.  The rest of the party lobs missiles, and one chucks an open flask of oil at it hitting very well, thus dousing the thing and leaving the flask stuck in the surface of the cube dribbling oil down the side.  The guy in the pit fails his dex check to get out.

What’s a gelatinous cube to do?  The guy in the pit is the closest victim, so he makes his attack, and I roll a miss.  The way to interpret the miss seems pretty obvious to me right away — the hole in the ground is smaller than 10′ diameter.  Thus the cube is sitting atop the hole, with the player trapped beneath in a pocket of earth, the bottom edge of the cube pressing dangerously close.  What do the other players do?  Why, light it on fire of course.

The cube dies, and in the past simply for flavor I’ve decided that when a gelatinous cube dies it loses its ability to retain its shape and falls into a puddle of goo.  In this case it’s mixed with oil and on fire, and of course it drops into the pit.  I decide a save vs. dragon breath is in order, which the player fails, and is promptly lit on fire.  The party hastily pulls him out and douses the flame.

It was a great combat, with a lot of laughter all around.  The image of this poor character trapped in a hole in the ground beneath a flaming gelatinous cube is really quite vivid in my mind.  I absolutely love it.  All this from a wandering monster and a well placed pit trap.  Fantastic!

So I guess the advice is, don’t stint on the set dressings.  A 30′ square room with a couple orcs in it is OK.  A 30′ square room with a rickety wooden platform in the north east corner on which sits an orc archer guarded on the floor by an orc with a spear is so much better.  You don’t even have to have an idea as to how the players or monsters might use the bits and bobs you toss into the room.  Put them in there, and surely during play someone will think of a clever and/or disastrous way to use them.

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