The Spirit of the Staircase

Here are two things the title of this post does not mean:

  1. A celebration of the  stairs, as well as the pits, ramps, and chutes, plus elevator rooms and often teleporters, that give old-school dungeons their awesome verticality. If this was that post, I’d note that many ways to go up and down is as much an essential element of a great dungeon’s  interesting-to-explore and meaningful-decision-generating spatial complexity as branching loops and hidden areas (and often creates vertical loops and searches to find a point of entry to something you know is above or below but presents no obvious way to get there). I’d trace the early history of verticality, which very rapidly goes from the organically evolved (1970-71’s Blackmoor Dungeon, where the connections between levels are many and complex but were likely created by Arneson superimposing the sheet of graph paper for each new level he was designing on top of the previous one and deciding which staircases would or wouldn’t exit on this level) to the highly designed (1976’s Dungeoneer adventures, where the rise and fall of elevations nestle on the same sheet of graph paper like origami before it’s folded, and were likely created by merging one’s consciousness with that of a being from a higher-dimensional space). And I’d theorize that this spirit of the staircase evolved from actual play as an immediate consequence of  the mythic underground idea that the treasure and danger increase the further away from the surface you get.
  2. A new kind of incorporeal monster which can perceive you only when you’re changing elevation, presumably because it comes from another plane where either horizontalness does not exist or its projection into our realm is strongly tied to the Z axis.

No, this post is about the French phrase l’esprit du escalier, which means the clever things you only think of saying after it’s too late to run back upstairs and deliver them. (This post will also not be about the many awesome things that implies about French culture and trying to invent similar phrases to express the essence of fantasy cultures).

In last night’s game, our heroes caught G’ruk the Fishfinder, shaman of the lizardmen tribe in the Caverns of Thracia, alone and whacked him. (I’d say with extreme prejudice except that Chrystos, who speaks Lizardman, went to such great lengths to protest any possible anti-reptile discrimination.) One of the many grace notes in Jaquay’s creation is a wonderfully evocative list of the things Gruk is carrying, from the mundane (18 gold pieces, a human jawbone) to the appropriate (sacred rocks, divination sticks) and straight through to the mysterious (a bag of alum?).

That pouch is the focus of my esprit du escalier. So there are four little bags within G’ruk’s big belt pouch, right? The text says one of them has alum. Two are unspecified – I said bone dust and dried river mud, but in a minor instance of e. du e. I wish I’d made one of them the ochre he’d used to draw his stick-figure of the Lizard God. And one is a virulent poison in the form of an airborne powder that G’ruk would have thrown at his attackers to create a deadly 10′ by 10′ cloud if he had survived long enough to get a single action.

Well, remember what happened last time the party found four mysterious bags within a bigger container and reached into one of them? The party sure does! (Hint: Fight Bag.) So John Fighter cautiously drags G’ruk’s corpse into another room where it won’t be discovered by his fellow lizardmen; cautiously loots his body; and, one by one, cautiously shakes out the content of the four little pouches…

Often, when I know some horrible fate is about to be sprung on the party, I go around and ask everyone what they’re doing. And usually, my emphasis on where exactly they’re doing it causes a mad rush to declare that, as James put it, “I’m further away than the person who’s furthest away.”

But in this case, the fact that John Fighter was about to cut short his own noble future and that of whichever PCs happened to be closest was an entirely unexpected treat. So my reflex was not to laboriously and tellingly establish locations, but rather to get right to making adventurers die.  Everyone was spread out and doing the kinds of wipe-off-my-sword-and-consult-the-map activities that traditionally follow lizardman slaughter, so I decided there was a flat 2 in 6 chance that any given PC was within the cloud of powdered save-or-die. The dice said Obscura, Lotur, and Arnold.

Sadly, James pointed out that he’d specified that the magic user formerly known as Zolobachai was doing something with the altar, and as this was more specific than the usual “didn’t I say I was visiting relatives on another plane?” I was happy to let him avoid the cloud. Fortunately, John, Obscura, and Lotur all rolled such crap that not even the +2 bonus to saving throws decreed by the merciful Mr. Jaquays could save them. “Okay,” I said, “you’ve all been killed.”

However, late last night I realized a better way I could have pinned down the PCs’ location. Asking people where they are is a give-away, but people are used to me saying “It sounds like there are lots of things people want to do; let’s go around the table to make sure everyone gets a turn.” (The earlier parts of the session, which often kept the spotlight on one or two players, would have benefited from this approach, but I felt it wasn’t feasible when only one person spoke Lizardman or when traveling en masse through the unknown made it advantageous for one caller to direct the group’s movement).

In hindsight I wished I’d used a clever bit of misdirection: “OK, John Fighter is shaking out the bags; what’s everyone else up to?” The reason I wish I’d done this is not that James felt guilty about talking his way out of being in the cloud, when previous statements implied that Lotur had also been over by the altar. Using the dice to determine who might be affected kept me from worrying about being out to get anyone in particular, and I knew I wasn’t favoring James; if Greengoat himself had reminded me about Lotur’s stated actions at the altar, I would have let him off the hook. (I suspect Greengoat didn’t speak up because accidental poison inhalation during looting is entirely fitting for a PC named Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, and much as I love the character of Lotur I respected his desire to go out with a whimper).

No, I wish I’d slyly duped the party into telling me where they were standing because:

1) starting the go-round with a description of  what John was doing might have caused more PCs to gravitate over to him on the suspicion that he was about to find something particularly awesome, increasing the number of potential targets for G’ruk’s unplanned but effective post-mortem revenge. (This would have worked better if John wasn’t so unimpeachably righteous and unlikely to snarf treasure for himself).

2) when the poison killed them, the fact that they had just heard me point out in a casual way that John is shaking out the bag, what are you doing would have driven home their own culpability in their death and given them their own midnight regrets: of course, I should have known that dumping out a bag is as lethal as reaching into one!

P.S. As it turned out, one of the things Ookla’s character sheet brought into the campaign from another era of creation was three doses of anti-venom. Everyone revived by these made their “will survive adversity” rolls, so no casualties were lasting. Still, we’ve had a long a phase of expansion in which the party got lots of cool things (or, in Ookla’s case, was allowed to re-activate them as everyone else caught up to his level of bling), and I am now delighted to be whittling away these resources, one platinum liger at a time. (Newly acquired levitating 30′ long battle-drinker worm, I’m coming for you!)

4 Responses to “The Spirit of the Staircase”

  1. March 8, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Tavis, you worry too much! Players can never really put one over on a sufficiently tricky DM. After all, the threat might not have come from the bag, but rather from wandering monsters drawn to the sound of the fight, in which case PCs who were keeping their distance from the dumped bag-contents and were thus off on their own would have been easy pickings for the newly arrived monsters!

  2. 2 Greengoat
    March 8, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Ah, nothing says old-school like a save-or-die roll that is triggered by workman-like looting.

    DM:”You are looking for treasure hmmm? Of course you die for your curiosity. Foolish player.”

    It’s funny that in the current game fiction, experienced dungeon explorers should now be bed-wetting terrified of burlap sacks. I think Lotur should have had to make a morale check to step into the bag of holding in the last running away stunt.

  3. March 8, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    So, I guess I missed the thing where everyone rolled 1d6 to see where they were standing: it just seemed like you arbitrarily picked John, Lotur, and . . .Emurak? . . . for death.

    Also, I don’t know what you’re talking about: nobody gravitates to ANYBODY while testing treasure, for precisely this reason. Unidentified, un-field-tested treasure is extraordinarily dangerous in 0e, and even into Basic, where approximately 10% of all magical items are cursed.

    Sometimes I feel bad saying things like, “I’m further away than the person who’s furthest away,” but it’s almost always the correct impulse: the one time I decided to walk into a room, those skeletons rose up to smite us.

    By the way, our clever escape plan was ENTIRELY GREENGOAT’s IDEA and he deserves all due credit for it.

  4. March 8, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Eric: Don’t get me wrong, I love random killing, but it’s even more delicious if the players talk themselves into it. Deciding to get as far away from what they think is danger only to put themselves in a position be eaten by something else is a good example!

    Greengoat: I think we can assume that Lotur was last into the bag, and waited until the crackling of the approaching translucent brain provided inspiration to overcome his scruples.

    James: I was the one who rolled the d6s – I dunno if anyone knew that was what I was doing. My sense of fairness is satisfied as long as I know I let the dice decide.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

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