Archive for November, 2017

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

You can’t pretend to block out a few words for the benefit of other writers without coming face to face with such helpfully intended writing manuals as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. ARRRRRGGGH! This is me giving full vent to the hot and cold love-hate I have for helpfully intended writing manuals.

In a perfect world we would understand what a deceased but successful screenwriter had to say about how to replicate his mainstream Hollywood career and then push all of that sometimes useful information just below the surface into the same place Zen archers go to hit bulls-eyes. At the very least, I would like to have fewer story conversations like this – “In Ben-Hur, him saving the Roman admiral sits squarely on the mid-point…” We can dream.

What Mr. Snyder did well was convey the hard-won experience of two decades of sitting across from a variety of other professionals (with varying degrees of storytelling skills) and try to distill a best practices primer. In this vein, his suggestions may help the writer to understand the constant push-pull between the originality we say we want and the comfort of the familiar justified by sales figures of successful movies. Mister Snyder condenses this conflict into a sentence – “Give me the same thing, only different!”

Interpreting the words on the page, it seems that Mr. Snyder’s point is that the writer can find both the “originality” and familiarity in the same piece by confining the new to a few moments of the story with a twist that goes against expectations created by recent similar movies. The remainder of the structure remains the same subject to an alleged “physics of storytelling” going back to the cave or stone tablets. For instance, the writer will analyze the structure of Star Wars and make the modest changes that get you Harry Potter.

The “originality” may come from how Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are different despite sharing the same Jungian archetype: fatherless boys that leave home to learn about the power within. And key moments, usually landing squarely on one of Mr. Snyder’s fifteen beats that make up a story’s spine (more later) have been changed between the two versions of the same story. Everything else about these examples in a genre labeled a Golden Fleece (quest) story in Snyder’s analysis will remain the same.

Which leads us to how Save the Cat names genres that have nothing to do with comedy, drama, biography or the words we think are story genres. I hate writing list sentences, so you’ll have to actually read the book for the full list and definitions to understand Golden Fleece versus Superhero or Dude With a Problem and the seven others. These names represent an ancient type of story form that is alleged to be universal and with us since the cave.

The fifteen beat spine presented with the ten genres represent loose instruction how to get from Fade In to Fade Out (the few times I write screenplays I just start with a slug and then end the script…rebel). Mister Snyder presents suggestions for each of these moments or beats using words like “false emotional up or down” to describe the mid-point (very nearly the exact middle of the story and a place for an important scene) intended to lead the writer, reader and view through the emotional rollercoaster of the story. When combined with his ten genres the beat sheet will guide the writer through the scary middle of the story where most of us hit brick walls when answering – “What next?”

Before getting to the beats and genre, Mr. Snyder suggests that the writer should answer – “What is it?” – about his/her story in the form of a logline and may even want to tap people’s arms in public to ask them about your story. Watch their eyes, you’ll know when your pitch hits a boring party and go back to the drawing board. And just so you know, the Player Pitch – “X meets Y in space.” – is not what was meant by a one sentence pitch. It can develop later as a funny shorthand, but the writer needs one, usually compound, sentence that says what the story is.

Even though I have my love-hate with Mr. Snyder’s work, largely I think because a guru’s devotees can ruin any party, I do apply some of his techniques. I woke up one morning with a brilliant idea and four tries later on paper (Mr. Snyder really wants people to solve story problems with $4 notebooks and pens before foisting trouble on everybody else further downstream in the production pipeline), what follows is my logline.

A naïve, engaging and mostly unseen combat cameraman acts as the official record of an investigation into a win-at-all-costs starship captain that uncovers an illegal cloning conspiracy.

So what do you think the Player Pitch for this logline might be? The work in progress pitch is – “An OG Star Trek Planetary Landing episode meets The Caine Mutiny filmed in the style of 84-Charlie Mopic.” Now, if Mr. Snyder were to zombie up to comment on this Player Pitch he might slap me around for not saying Blair Witch Project in the Z slot, where the in space douchery usually goes, to convey that this story is Found Footage.

Mister Snyder asserted quite cheerfully that the writer who absolutely must use a Player Pitch will always name hits – “Ishtar meets Howard the Duck” – being a specific example of the opposite from his book. My problem in this case is that I really HATE Blair Witch and want to convey the military flavor of the story that the more obscure and awesome indie that predates BWP by twelve years or so does. I’ll take a hall pass and tell Zombie Snyder to go eat someone else’s brains thank you very much.

I haven’t gone further with this story because I have so much prose to write and the minute you say Found Footage, it can’t even be written as a comic book. But, I did wait to write until I have my logline. When I do get back to it, I need to watch The Caine Mutiny, A Few Good Men, and Judgment at Nuremburg along with every OG Trek episode cheerfully slaying redshirts. Just to make sure I grok, I will also boot up various Trek courtroom episodes across all the shows. All to make sure I know which beats to steal for my script.

Oh, and I’ll read the books from which these movies might have been adapted something Mr. Snyder didn’t mention. If his storytelling advice applies universally then reading the books will also reveal beats, genre and tone. Use your library card or lose it.

So far, I must sound like a gushing devotee (it’s the followers that ruin the party remember?). Now for the soft mushy parts that Mr. Snyder might not have fully understood still leaves many writers in the dark where they started.

Mostly I want to keep Save the Cat a little further away from novel writing than screenwriting. My process with novels is one where I get the idea and start blasting out words saying things like – “I use the first draft to discover my connection to the characters and plot and will fix it later.” His process delays the timely release of that book and if his suggestions are as universal as claimed then my narrative will naturally find those comfortable beats that define our stories since the cave. Worrying about the fifteen beats upfront just adds a lot of freak out to the process. An editing tool.

Another minor bit of contention with Mr. Snyder’s methodology is that key sections are glossed over with names like Fun and Games. This is a section early in the story in between Stating the Theme and Turn into Two (reading the book will explain these terms better) where the characters move through scenes essentially in between more important beats. It’s just that when you name it Fun and Games, you might give the misapprehension that these scenes don’t matter and can be anything as long as they link the State Theme scene with the Turn into Two (beginning of the Second Act) scene. All scenes matter and should reflect the character of the protagonist.

Speaking of the many structure-heavy writing manuals of which Save the Cat is currently the best selling version, I’ve noticed that the writers may short shrift developing characters. Mister Snyder asserts that part of the logline process includes developing the protagonist (naïve, engaging and mostly unseen combat cameraman) and the antagonist (win-at-all-costs starship captain). But, he doesn’t go much further than what are essentially Jungian archetypes rooted in those adjectives. The cliché going back to Syd Field or further is – “you need compelling characters…” Duh!

This is where I get to recommend an acting class or two for writers. Good actors create compelling characters, even for bit parts, based on the saying that “everyone is the hero of their own narrative.” Whether trained in the Method or the various competing anti-Method techniques an actor will make up a person to play, even for the yeoman silently handing Captain Kirk a clipboard. It seems to me that the writing manual author that incorporates both this ubiquitous structure knowledge and deep dives on what actors actually do will likely deserve being a bestseller.

Now we get to the biggest concern about Save the Cat and the many similar books rooted in two questions.

Does Save the Cat really describe universal narrative themes, structures and meanings?

If it is universal, are there other equally universal dramatic story forms that haven’t surfaced in our consciousness in the same way that might also hold the audience’s interest?

Save the Cat describes a variation of the Hero’s Journey originally named by folklorist Joseph Campbell (recently distilled by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey). Mister Snyder says nice things about other authors of other structure-heavy manuals. Syd Field is listed as an inspiration and that Mr. Synder used the earlier work as the basis of his fifteen beat structure, so that people moving from On Screenwriting to Save the Cat won’t feel like they’ve been completely and uselessly reeducated. Robert McKee is also listed as someone to listen to (Mr. Snyder says there is a theatricality to Mr. McKee’s seminar that can’t be missed).

But, if you dig deeply enough, you’ll find that among academic folklorists there is backlash against the Hero’s Journey that may wander afield into the nasty politics of the age (Liberal Arts favoring evil Multiculturalism versus sound principles of Western Civilization). Until this debate is resolved either way, hopefully by scholars willing to shift the theory to fit the facts instead of distort the facts to fit the theory, there will always an asterisk next to any book that sells copies according to the Hero’s Journey.

Yes, Hollywood has massive worldwide sales figures from good movies in this narrative style working for the Universal Physics of Storytelling argument. But, Hollywood does crap in that style too. The debate continues.

This matters to the writer because we aren’t folklorists. We tell stories and, after we leave school, we don’t have time to read/see/hear everything. We plow through the things we need to get through our next project. Our protagonist is a cop so we watch/read about other fictional police and maybe ask a few questions of real cops, but not one of us could authoritatively argue for the universality of the underlying story forms. We just want the handy reference book that gets us through the next project.

Mister Snyder comes close with Save the Cat and the several exploitative sequels (posts for another day) in that once we figure out if the Hero’s Journey is universal just because we’re people or whether Hollywood and Mass Market Publishing made it so by drowning out all other story forms, this book does the Hero’s Journey quite well. I’ll repeat the part about needing a deeper dive into what actually makes a character compelling, but I don’t have any reason to not recommend this book to any writer beginning their journey from wannabe to master wordsmith. Just take with salt and please Dear God allow me to get more whiskey before we go off on discussions like – “Obi-Wan Kenobi getting whacked is the All is Lost moment in Star Wars…”

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Even the Target mannequins must fear Nosfer-roach…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Nosfer-roach. A vampire cockroach named after Nosferatu. Again, let’s not reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to. Bloodsucking or carnivorous insects aren’t actually all that new in either nature (fleas, mosquitos) or fantasy (Them!) and I’m certain somebody somewhere has stared down a pack of jaded players that has read all the listings in The Monster Manual and just gone – “Fine! What look like six cockroaches about the size of golf bags scuttle out from holes in the walls. Initiative rolls, please. (Dice rolls around table). And those of you that are on the ball notice that these large disgusting insects have fangs much like a vampire or maybe a tarantula and at least two sets of fangs are smeared in wet blood.”

As always the discriminating GM, will have to bend a little imagination to just how the nosfer-roach will interact with players (a.k.a. unsuspecting victims). What follows are my suggestions, blovius and reasoning to support such. Your mayhem will vary.

First question to answer – how intricately linked to vampires is the nosfer-roach species?

I’m pretty sure that the answer will almost uniformly trend towards – “Dude, calling the proposed beast nosfer-anything will automatically put it in the vampire lifecycle in a way that hopefully makes more sense than Alien Xenomorphs, Facehuggers and all fifty stops in between!” Sorry, I can’t resist bashing the Alien Franchise for its massively confusing cinematic pseudo-biology

Yes, the vampire is built into the name. But, from another point of view we do have to ask the question, if only to differentiate how real bloodsuckers and carnivorous bugs do things. Fleas and mosquitos take a little blood leaving behind small doses of the natural anticoagulant that itches like hell ten minutes after they leave. The mommy bug lays her eggs and the blood feeds them. And nothing else untoward happens to the blood donor.

Well, nothing else happens in a First World country with the budget to conduct baited bug traps so scientists can be paid modest sums of money to put dead bugs in a blender and test for the presence of various infectious viral vectors and bacteria. After which the health authorities in said First World country basically send out the helicopters to emulate certain scenes from Apocalypse Now (Wagner opera selections on the PA system optional) armed to the teeth with Malathion. The Third World basically needs to become intimately familiar with whatever naturally occurring bug repellent is known to the local wise man and bug nets…lots of bug nets.

However, nothing about malaria, yellow fever, West Nile and Plague have any symptoms that mimic what the movies teach us about vampires. Certainly no one is known to have come back from these bug born killers as a carrier likely to infect one’s innocent lover. Similarly the merely flesh eating among bugs just eat everything and then march to the next part of forest stripping everything in the army’s path. Again nothing about it says Vampire.

Second question to answer – Once we establish that there has to be a link between nosfer-roach and vampire, did the Vampire Curse arise in large mutated cockroaches first crossing over into humans and other humanoid RPG species, or did a vampire infect the bugs at some later point?

Basically, this is the Chicken and the Egg Question Vampire Style. Either way, the existence of the nosfer-roach exists as a hedge against the Vampire Curse dying out because of a lack of transmission. Why? The traditional post-Dracula narrative assumes that the bloodsucker is someone with a budget that can invite Brides (Grooms?) and other victims in for tea at which time he/she busts out the seduction and hypnotism skills.

However, seduction and hypnotism seem from a purely pseudo-biological point of view a grossly inefficient method of spreading the Curse that we assume acts like a virus. The vampire might receive the gift of magical seduction power upon turning, but magical seduction power is still going to demonstrate a wide range of results among different vampires. Dracula also has the castle, darkly handsome looks and Vlad Tepes’ former budget as the undead Prince of Walachia with which to woo unsuspecting young women. By contrast Dubchak of Dubchak the Polish Vampire (played by the immortal Eddie Deezen) is a dweeb vampire who might not ever win the Bed and Bite contest with any other vampires in the story.

Even if we act like school bullies and shove Dubchak into a locker to improve the field for Dracula, seduction and hypnosis lose much of their potency the minute we contemplate the vampire’s natural enemy, the highly educated hunter…Abraham van Helsing. I’ve never seen a movie with Van Helsing or one of his descendants where the doctor-hunter didn’t come to the party armed with his own hypnosis that cancels out Vlad’s powers. Watch Love at First Bite for the funny version of this hypno-fight.

Seduction and hypnosis methodology continues to break down when we at least pretend to consider the agency of the selected Bride/protagonist. Experience teaches if you live. A selected Bride that rises up to find her inner Wonder Woman would probably laugh at the second vampire in her life.

We assume from getting our biology and pseudo-biology from Wikipedia that viruses and Curses that act like viruses do so to maximize the potential to spread. Therefore whether Dubchak dweebs his way through the dance or Dracula folds her up in his arms to speak sweet nothings in her ear the vampire seduction method can only work some of the time. The pseudo-biology of the Curse wants more surety. Enter the nosfer-roach.

The idea here for the discriminating GM is to create an alternative vector that maximizes the Curse spreading using a beast that lives in filth and attacks by regular old non-seductive ambush and fades back into the shadows. Earlier vampire lore that resulted in the actual silent movie classic Nosferatu assumed just that methodology. He snuck up on you and it was all over but the shouting within seconds.

Nosferatu’s weakness was being an ugly beast sure to inspire fear. When you get to see him coming you have a chance to leave him out in the sun. Giving the Curse an additional vector using disgusting bugs might seem more of the same, but the GM gets to play with how large the roaches are. Smaller bugs than the ones I propose (golf bag size) can hide anywhere and bite more people and even larger bugs still retain much of that ability compared to the ugly beast presented in the classic movie.

Regardless of how the GM chooses to answer my second Chicken or Egg question, here’s how I see the process going. The vampire gets frustrated with his diminishing returns, as the local peasant women become hard targets with mental and physical kung fu and summons his Renfield. Luckily, the wretched soul that aids and abets the vampire typically just loves eating all kinds of insects, roaches among them. Renfield leads his master to the nest whereupon the vampire opens up his wrist and sprinkles blood all over the roach eggs. Presto! The eggs mutate into nosfer-roach growing to whatever size is deemed scariest by the Author/GM. Again, don’t reinvent the wheel.

The weakness of this method in your story is that the open the wrist and drink from the vampire’s blood motif, represents a conscious choice to become a vampire. Nobody that gets bit by a nosfer-roach makes this choice. My own meager imagination fails in this exact spot, but trust me much Author/GM tap-dancing will take place.

To aid the nosfer-roach in its mission to spread the Vampire Curse, I will suggest a few rule changes to vampires to make these vile bastards just a little tougher for your game. I would drop the whole sunlight kills thing (selectively edited out of vampire mythology anyways). I would argue that the insect exoskeleton is made from substances impervious to ultraviolet light. This allows transmission during the day (doesn’t matter that I see roaches at night).

In the nosfer-roach stage only, I would also drop the mirror thing. When contemplating the mirror trick for regular vampires it just goes bye-bye the minute we read the page for Optics on Wikipedia and it’s a dead giveaway. But for the roaches, the mirror trick seems even more of an obvious thing. But, your mayhem and the logic behind it will vary.

Lastly, the Vampire Curse wants to spread so whatever armor class the GM would give the average giant insect, I would add a little more, just because. Tough beasts last longer and are more fun in a game. Again, don’t reinvent the wheel.

The stats I propose for my version of nosfer-roach – SIZE 4-5 feet (golf bag size), HIT DICE 6-8 D8, AC equivalent to a pissed off barbarian in chain mail. Walks during the day, but prefers the dark. Spreads the Curse just through the bite bypassing the whole open wrist thing requiring Constitution saving throws or a Remove Curse Spell. But, of course, your mayhem will vary.

Now we get to my personal why. What is it about the nosfer-roach that fascinates me enough to spend 1,608 words wishing the beast into being with suggestions that GMs may tweak as they see fit? Sometimes I just do gory stuff to justify gory pictures at the top of the post. Your mayhem will vary.

Just another unsuspecting adventure party…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

In all my time dungeoneering or whining about not dungeoneering, I’ve noticed several related odd things about play in the traditional fantasy set roleplaying games that are specific to the genre. Most other RPG settings and genres along with fantasy RPG campaigns that allow guns seem to self-select away from these particular tropes, in favor of other clichés to be dissected in other posts. Good GM/DM types will work to avoid these head scratchers and/or a Guns OK fantasy campaign will take care of the rest. Stop me only if I don’t end up describing your last ten fantasy RPG adventures.

A party has just cleared a few rooms in that stereotypical dungeon shown in the illustrations in the rule books: walls made of quarried stone blocks, ten-foot wide corridors and doors made of oak planks banded together with cast iron. The dramatic progression of monsters intent on eating, protecting treasure, burying real and metaphorical hatchets in PC heads or just merely getting in out of the rain has been increasingly violent (the GM/DM has read the same screenwriting manuals as the rest of us). Each battle has made a lot of noise, almost musical noise that seems sure to reverberate through these ancient stone hallways and the party contemplates the next door.

Room One sheltered three orcs armed with Nordic hand axes and probably wasn’t too serious noise wise…maybe C 5 on the piano with all that clanking steel. Room Two probably contained two uber-skeletons (extra hit dice for extra difficulty) skilled enough to make Ray Harryhausen smile from Beyond; this fight might hit B-flat 6 or E-flat in the same octave (an allowance for real gamers do, in strict point of fact, scream. Why we are sometimes banished to the card table in the garage). Room Three might have a half-size ogre where the battle noise alerting the monster in the next room might peak at A-flat 7. And then the cruel, vicious DM sends the party into Room Four with a medusa-siren hybrid and this fight will go off the charts for both volume and high-pitched sound. Basically, I’m guessing this femme monster and/or the swordplay will hit A Over High C, just like the diva singing the lead in the Met’s current production of The Exterminating Angel.

This seems to be a lot of noise bouncing off those stone walls, sure to wake up or alert the next monster in the next room. Yet, invariably when the party approaches that next door (probably the smallest white dragon possible given the hypothetical progression), the party stops at the new door beginning the Door Procedure all over again. Listen. Browbeat the thief to test the lock and look for traps. Enter. Slaughter everything that looks like a monster. Assess results and heal damage, if possible. Bathe in ancient treasure before moving to the next door. A good life that avoids anything remotely like a pseudo-medieval day job.

There are good reasons for this odd rhythm of play in a straight up dungeon clearing adventure. Traps exist to keep the party from getting over confident in the same way that football teams run in order to making passing plays possible. And pausing at the next door can also play into the rules for magic and health recovery allowing the party to make it through to the dungeon’s exit.

And some of these tropes are inevitable, especially when we compare the trade of dungeoneering to the slightly related real world trade of clearing terrorists from bunkers. On the surface, the two careers are indistinguishable…a team enters, all the bad people inside get whacked and the team either then bathes in ancient treasure or they high five that they wiped out terrorists that threatened civilians from the home country. But, we have to look carefully at how anti-terrorism/S.W.A.T. raids are actually different from clearing dungeons to see the fine gradations of my point about how the traditional dungeon clear mission needs a savvy DM to avoid silliness that prevents Suspension of Disbelief.

When Delta Force goes through the door we can assume that the team has the blueprints to the structure before going inside. Even halfway civilized cities make a point of requiring new construction projects to file architect’s drawings with a city department that are either accessible through bribery or are online. This allows the team to build plywood replicas and train repeatedly, or to make a plan that adapts preexisting shoot house training to the new layout.

The adventuring party by contrast happens upon an ancient ruined structure for which no one alive has been inside for generations allowing ghost stories to develop about Dracula’s Castle, up yonder on that hill. Not having the plans has a way of naturally forcing most people to slow down and get the thief to deal with the door. Where the art of dungeoneering can go off the rails is when the inexperienced DM still rolls for Monster Surprise and/or Dragon Found Asleep on the fifth or sixth door in the dungeon, when the noise of all that fighting should wake up everybody between here and the sewers of Minas Tirith.

The one exception to this suggestion would come specifically after a team rest period where the heroes take four hours to get back a few hit points and have the next batch of spells memorized. You can sort of rationalize that monsters, like people, might be lulled back into complacency once they stop hearing scary fight noises for a long enough time. But, many monsters are depicted as having language skills implying a social order, learning and advanced thought suggesting that after the first few doors that the DM simply says, “look guys, you’ve made a lot of noise and the ogre in this room knows you were always coming in for the golden spoon it has treasured since birth causing him to set his ten-foot spear against you.”

Going back to the compare and contrast between dungeoneering and bunker clearing, having the plans and wanting to find Osama bin Laden in the back room has a way of driving the mission to go faster. If a colonel understands that there are twenty rooms to clear with a principal in an upper floor back room and twenty goons as protection, then he or she will block out thirty commandos from the unit.

Four to six will cover with sniper rifles and the rest will form four-man mini-teams each designated to leapfrog hitting doors. A team hits a door. Another team hits the room next door and the first team will move to the next unopened door down the hall. Stealth skills trained into everyone on the team and sound suppressors do have a way of hiding movement until just before entering and shooting all the bad guys in the room.

The adventure party is basically reconnoitering the dungeon going in blind hoping to find monsters to slay and treasure to liberate. The dungeon party is by definition smaller than the anti-terrorism team which means that fewer resources exist to clear out the structure in a quick and timely manner (besides treasure is on the line, expect adventuring parties to behave with the mutual suspicion of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). When 4-6 instead of 20-30 people go into a resisted interior space with no preconceived notions of saving the pretty Peace Corps volunteer with a gun to her head, the PCs don’t need to be all that rapid. The gold will still be there when we get to that particular door in thirty minutes…or tomorrow.

Hoping to close out the Delta Force comparison, the single most effective way for a DM to control his players’ behavior is the judicious use of booby traps. As said above, using traps serves to keep the party from treating dungeons like Delta Force raids. I have been in campaigns where after a while new rooms went like this… Listen. Test lock. Seek traps. Kick/pry open the door. Toss in the lit flask of magnesium infused oil (the fantasy RPG equivalent of either a flash-bang or an out and out fragmentation grenade). Slaughter everything that survives. I’m sure our DM hated us and just didn’t say it.

And we’ve seen enough modern rescue missions depicted to know that terrorists set up plenty of booby traps. But, there is a difference in the character of said traps that should be noted by the experienced DM in order to preserve Suspension of Disbelief. I’ve noticed that the traps in stereotypical fantasy RPG dungeons have a mechanical ingenuity/Rube Goldberg feel that real world booby traps aren’t likely to have. Basically, the fictional traps feel built by the same builders of the average pharaoh’s tomb with pressure plates in the floor leading to poison darts or an extra tumbler in the lock that has nothing to do with opening the door but might drop the thief into the oubliette on the floor below. Real world booby traps seem to have a character more prosaic, a tripwire leading to a crossbow or shotgun propped up to cover the door.

My thoughts here are rooted in the one area where the thinking of the people inside the dungeon might be identical, or at least should be treated as such by the DM. It seems a rarity that Delta Force will find a room that has both a trap and terrorists inside. Usually, it seems the bad guys will prop up the shotgun to cover the door because they’ve decided to retreat into a more defensible room with more friendlies or they just want to get out and hide among civilians until the next mission. Or they will stand and fight.

One very sound reason for this suggestion for either bad guys in the room or a trap, but not both is that if you set up a trap the mechanism can also work to kill members of the home team instead of the invaders. If the bad guys set up a claymore directional charge before escaping out the back door, those explosives might go off early. Similarly, the crossbow set up behind a dungeon door impedes the ability of the orcs in the room to do normal things, like going to the bathroom or seeking food. This creates a similar suggestion that most traps will be makeshift and defeated by plastering to the wall out of line of sight to the doorway.

And to beat these suggestions home so that they stick, I have heard of extremely devilish real world booby traps, but only after the opposing army evacuated the area and wanted to demolish the port, building or airfield to deny easy use to the advancing enemy. In World War Two, German engineers wired a building so that a GI peeing on a wall flattened the whole structure. I wouldn’t expect this behavior in a contested structure because saving your own guys for the next fight is a priority for nearly everyone.

By contrast, the Rube Goldberg traps favored by pharaonic tomb builders and punchy DMs seem to take on a character of something designed to protect loot many years, decades and centuries after the ancient users of the space have long since gone to dust. True, old and musty dungeons and haunted castles up on the hill are the bread and butter of fantasy RPGs, but the green DM will sometimes put a monster and trap behind the same door without thought leading to this question – “wouldn’t that ogre get hurt tripping the trapdoor into the oubliette the first time he needed to pee?”

Which leads us to another odd thing about inexperienced DM dungeons…a monster in every room. The progression I described above involves four different sentient or semi-sentient monster races all neatly tucked into their rooms in the dungeon that doesn’t consider lessons learned from how humans pack themselves into multi-family housing.

Do orcs like living next to an ogre? Do the skeletons make too much noise rattling their bones for the medusa-siren’s delicate diva sensibilities? And does the white dragon in Room Five imagine the day when the pins in his curse dolls representing his neighbors will pay off with painful deaths bringing peace? And will an invading party of adventurers bring them all together in common cause?

Basically, the DM who haphazardly throws such disparate monster races together would need to invent a backstory of residential politics worthy of shows like Melrose Place to explain why these disparate races that live together in the functional equivalent of a condo HOA association aren’t killing each other. You can argue that certain types of dungeons might exist as a training center for adventurers. A wizard of dubious character makes money throwing would be heroes who pay for the privilege through a trapdoor.

But, then the monsters in that dungeon suddenly have as much reason to escape as the player characters and we should expect the wizard running the dungeon/shoot house to enact certain cruelties upon his monsters to keep them there. For instance, you kick in the door to the medusa-siren-diva’s room and you should expect to find her chained to the wall with a piss bucket. Chained to the wall will almost always bring about pity on the party of the adventurers leading to all kinds of weirdness the DM didn’t plan…like freeing said diva that would otherwise turn them to stone or make their eardrums bleed hitting A Over High C at 150 decibels.

Otherwise, why aren’t the monsters also exploring the dungeon seeking nicer quarters as far away as possible from the smelly ogre in 3A? This suggests that adventure parties should blunder into monsters out and about stretching their legs in the hallways. Inexperienced DMs forget to do this along with other things.

In the interest of saving metaphorical ink, I will close this post letting my amusement at how we actually play fantasy RPGs wash over you with a tease for a later post about how to do sensible dungeons and adventures. A post for another day.