On Binding the Design Demon

Yesterday I wrote a post on design, and how what I do is different then what I have experienced in most games.

This post explains the meaning of that in detail. This post is long, but well sectioned. Each of the bold headings below the demon bound will give an example of play not concerned with simulating reality. Terminology used is defined at the end of the post.

Unless something is an Encounter, it is of minimal relevance to the play of the game. The actual physical structure of the world is irrelevant to the play of the game.

The Demon Bound

What in the hell does this mean? And how, exactly, is it different then what you are doing currently?
  • Encounters
Creating Encounters means to craft a situation that presents to the players, choices with significant, often uncertain, consequences.

Seems simple and direct, but note that you aren't just creating a building and filling rooms with monsters. You aren't even doing the extra step of developing relationships between those rooms. What you are doing is making judgments about what is relevant and why. 

A lot of this is done automatically for you when you generate a dungeon and fill it with monsters. Some of it can even be done on the fly, during play. But with the approach of 'interesting choices' as a goal instead of realism, then you remove the ability of players to have their characters interact with boredom. Since everything presented is a crafted choice, no time is spent wasted on things that are uninteresting to interact with and go nowhere.With 'interesting choices' as a goal, you remove the ability of players to interact with boredom. [Tweet This]

Yes, if you consistently drill down in play on random 'realistic' things then something interesting might occur eventually. But then how many hours of table time is wasted doing things that don't lead somewhere?

The assumption that this somehow limits character choice is incorrect also. I'm talking about what you design and choose to present as important. This in no way means that my players can't pull over random townsperson X and talk to them or grab some bedframe in a dungeon and break it up to burn it. 

Let's take some examples. Each of these examples supposes you are a creative person who is interested in maximizing the enjoyment of everyone who participates in your game.
  • Extra items in a room, not related to the interesting choices
"You see a bedroom, with several items of note. A pair of boots lie on the floor, an ancient oak armoire stands next to the window, and a silver sword hangs on the wall."

Don't bother describing them. Like an artist, what you choose to present is your work. It is ok to have an item be Nothing in order to increase suspense, but there is no reason why you must present every last thing in the room and make them go through each and every item. Decide as a designer what interesting choices their are and make the items that are designed to be Nothing seem suspicious so they do their job of increasing tension and acting as red herrings. Note specifically that uninteresting and unimportant items designed as Nothing are exactly that. The (non-described) bed in the example situation is a waste of everyone's time.

This is key to avoiding tedious verbal exploration of rooms.
  • A series of uninteresting rooms
"There is nothing of particular interest in the west wing."

Why is this room empty? We are all familiar with good solutions for dealing with empty rooms. Instead of tediously forcing the players to explore each room, present the room or series of rooms as a single interesting choice. "It will take you X turns to toss the rooms for anything interesting. This will result in Y wandering monster checks."

But in reality, this is a way of avoiding responsibility for bad design. In modern modules this is "solved" by creating nothing but rooms that are encounters. This is also dull. By removing nothing (and often tricks, and traps as puzzles) the game loses variation and becomes tedious.

The same thing that happens with an abundance of empty rooms.

The idea is to not have the nothing option be boring, but have empty items increase tension every time they appear. If your players are bored with empty rooms it is because the nothing option is too common, poorly implemented, or threats they encounter aren't serious, frequent, or severe enough to worry about their choices.

A lot of people have asked "isn't this how I'm running my game now?" I ask them, is it?

Do you create two nothing items in a room deliberately, one that looks like treasure and another like a trick?

Do your players walk away from empty rooms convinced that they have missed something or thankful they didn't die?

Are you using these empty rooms with purpose? Because if you are, searching empty rooms should never be tedious.
  • Keeping things interesting
"You see what looks like a golden shield hanging on the wall."

When designing these encounters things things seem pretty simple, because you know what is going to happen. The players have no idea what the encounter conceals. They parse the basic information you give them into a guess of which one of the five categories it falls into (see terminology at the end of the article).

But even though things seem more complex to them, consider taking it even further. Not only can you misdirect them by having one thing (trick, treasure, etc.) appear like another, consider multi-level encounters. A monster that is actually treasure (Owlbear->eggs) a trap that hides a monster (Swiveling wall->Otyugh) a trap that hides a trick (Pit-Secret Door) and so on. 
  • Players who insist on being pedantic about searches
"Yes, there's nothing there. There are however the boots, the sword, and the armoire."
Remind them of what the actual interesting objects are. Use the Quantum Ogre advice to present this information to the players. If you design the encounter to avoid having boring uninteresting choices, then reframe the options the players have available if they focus on meaningless items.

This is another place people seem insistent on making sure there is plenty of opportunity to be bored. Just because you present actionable options to your players, does not in any way prevent them from coming up with their own plans. Also, nothing about this means you can't use a good idea you come up with in play (e.g. Maybe there is a secret door under the rug. . . )

Again, don't design tedium into the game and then make up mechanics to bypass boredom you designed in.
  • A new player joins the game mid-session
"Suddenly you arrive! How did you get there?"

Have the player enter the session as quickly as they can get their character created. Why weren't they around a minute ago? Who cares. I am certain you three to six creative people can come up with some explanation. 

If you are concerned about the reality of the game world, the real reality of the actual world is that there is an actual human being you are forcing to sit out of having fun.
  • Avoiding excess rolls
"Yes, you climb down the shaft no problem."

I have only rarely played in games that didn't require a ton of useless rolls. (And every single one was an OSR blogger! Thanks Zak, Jeff, and Noisms!) Think long and hard before requiring a roll.

Rolling in OSR games isn't making choices. They are simply finding out the results of a choice they have already made. 
  • A trap lies in the hallway
"There is a horribly burned kobold in the hallway with a single unburnt spear shaft extending from his flesh. The hallway ahead glistens."

What is the purpose of a trap? What does that do for the actual play of the game? 

Here is the thinking on the trap search: 
  • The characters have to search for a trap to avoid getting hit by it. 
  • They do this by rolling their 'search for traps skill'. 
  • If I call for a search for traps skill (or roll it myself) they know something is up. 
  • So I have to roll times when there is not traps also, so that they don't know that there's a trap. 
  • If they succeed in finding the trap they can bypass it. 
  • If they fail, we roll some dice and see if and how much damage it does."

Can you find any choice that a player makes in that process?
All for the purpose of taking away some hit points?

Yes, you there in the back correctly pointed out that the character chose to build his character that way, so it's rewarding the choice he made before he sat down to play.

Has anyone, ever, played in a group at any game anywhere, where some player didn't maximize his ability to find traps? Isn't something we are obligated to spend called a tax?

This is why we aren't concerned with reality. What we are concerned with is designing an Encounter. So all hallway traps should be puzzles to solve.
  • A trap lies on a door or chest
"You find a chest and [clatter] don't detect a trap."

The door or the chest is an encounter. It is presented as a barrier to possible treasure.

Because it is a limited space, it rapidly becomes trivial to perform a fairly exhaustive set of actions on the chest or door to check for traps. Since the actions are exhaustive and must be performed at every door and chest there isn't any player choice involved. This is a situation where a skill roll to find traps isn't removing gameplay but creating an interesting choice. Do I take the risk of triggering a trap by searching and disarming it, or do I bash it open, possibly destroying items / alerting monsters?

  • Non player characters and Antagonists
"The salagtite shifts and a single red eye opens. You hear it say, 'Wizard? I haven't had wizard in aaaageeeessssss.'"

Antagonists fall into several categories. These can be split into two types. Simple and complex.
Types of simple monsters include:
  1. Monsters that are an obstacle that must be overcome or avoided
    1. A monster guarding treasure
    2. Gargoyles protecting the entrance to the second level
    3. A Minotaur prowling a mazee
  2. Monsters that attempt to disguise themselves as another element
    1. A townsperson provides a quest (trick) and reward (treasure)
    2. A mimic looks like a chest (treasure)
    3. A trapper looks like the floor (nothing)
    4. Yellow mold looks like gold (treasure)
    5. A gatekeeper asks for a password (trick)
Or they are complex, in which case they are literally a miniature module themselves. An encounter with a complex NPC or monster should be resolved the same as an encounter with a room. The description and reaction roll provide the setting for the first 'room' of the encounter. Every interaction beyond that should follow the same rules as any encounter. Information should be given, players are made aware of the likely consequences of their choices to maintain agency, and they may do things (cast spells, ask questions) to acquire more information. Then the players make a choice and accept the consequences.


Encounters contain the following five elements. AntagonistsTrapsTricksTreasure, or NothingAntagonists are active entities who directly interact with the characters in a significant way. Traps are either visible puzzles to solve, or function as a possible threat guarding TreasureTricks are interactable toys with a variety of effects. Treasure includes any player character reward, secret doors, coins and jewelry, magic items boons, favors or any positive result for the player. Nothing is a result that serves to increase tension.

The Demon Serves

You already are familiar with how I engage in displaying this information from the set design series. This is why only things that provide interesting choices exist in the format.

Put your questions and objections below and they will be addressed tomorrow in the final post in the Design Demon series.


  1. This should be required reading for anyone who wants to DM.

    Seriously good stuff.

  2. Your posts on player agency around traps are my favorite feature on your blog, and a series that has been very eye opening to myself, and I hope will improve my ability as a GM. Many OSR blogs talk about using descriptions instead of dice rolls, but until I found your blog, I never ran across any that really told you how in a meaningful way.

    I always wondered though if you just abandoned the search dice rolling mechanic, and so hearing that you seem to use them for door/chest traps is extremely interesting to me. So if I may inquire further, do you provide detail on the individual doors/chests that hint of a high probability of them being trapped, or is it just generally understood that these objects have a high likelyhood of being trapped? And can it be inferred that you make use of rolls when the traps are of the small mechanical types that are well concealed by nature?

    Those questions did not come out quite right I imagine, basically I want to know more about when you use rolls for searching in your games, any why?

  3. Returning to the previous column in the series, I'm still unclear.

    "The players have no idea what the encounter conceals. They parse the basic information you give them into a guess of which one of the five categories it falls into"..."Antagonists, Traps, Tricks, Treasure, or Nothing"

    So, they could indeed guess that Nothing could be something? And then you respond to those actions by saying "Yes, there's nothing there. There are however the boots, the sword, and the armoire" and then "Remind them of what the actual interesting objects are."

    Is that how you work it, resolve the Nothing case quickly?

    In my practice, I use the deliberate question of spending a turn searching (with possible encounter check) to remind them that the game is about their choices and the consequences, so a tension builder. But otherwise I try to resolve the Nothing case quickly.

    1. I desire to communicate this clearly.

      A "Nothing" object isn't an empty room or a series of rooms that have assorted junk within it that must be searched. In fact, this is specifically what I'm talking about when I say "I am unconcerned with reality".

      A "Nothing" result is a result specifically designed to increase tension. So that means, it is an object that appears to be of interest, but actually is not. It may appear to be of interest because of location, resemblance to another option (trick etc.), or where it is placed.

      Players interact with "Nothing" objects the same way they interact with interesting objects. They do so, because the results could be just as deadly as interacting with an actual trick, trap, or monster -- that's the point of a "Nothing" object, to increase tension.

      This works regardless of scale! "You search the entire abandoned castle, you find only the man sleeping in the glass case in the master bedroom, the black door in the basement, and the gilded cage in the aviary covered in a black cloth."

      There is no reason to resolve unimportant things at the table. I often feel when you use the phrase 'Nothing case' that I would call that something I would not even mention. Yes, of course there are other rooms in the castle. And they have all the regular stuff in them.

      I just don't think that is where the gameplay is. So I don't spend any time on it.

      Now, of course I agree with your statement that the game is about choices and consequences. If they were like, "Hmmmm, we'd like to loot the castle of all it's arms and armor." Then as a table we'd have a short discussion of time taken, logistics, and values in gold of the haul.

      Does this make any sense?

      It is like the background in an adventure game that you can't click on because it isn't important. It's just for looking pretty, of course being an RPG if you have a plan that uses an assumed background, you can. But in play I make it clear that it is the background and is not relevant to the gameplay.

      Additional Example:

      Often, when interacting with the interesting objects (say a room filled with 2 nothing objects) they will believe that there is a secret door and be unable to find it. In this case, they can choose to 'search for secret doors', in which case they get their basic chance or skill to locate the door. This takes one turn of time per 10' yadayadayada. But this will just tell them where the actual door is, not necessarily the mechanism for opening it.

      I've played with groups not bright enough to locate and figure out triggers, so there always remains the brute force method! Have everybody take turn after turn searching. Bash down doors (making 3 wandering monster checks a turn over the 2-5 turns it takes) that we can't figure out how to open.

    2. This is a really good series of examples. I feel like calling it "nothing" is bad terminology though. It's not very clear without this kind of expansion. Red herring is okay, but still not perfect. Distraction maybe, as it's something meant to consume time without payoff? Diversion?

  4. Just saw this and your previous post. You and I are pretty much on the same page about this sort of thing. Here's a recent blog post I made on the same subject:


  5. I am interested in your thoughts on realism as it relates to town guards and other civil structures. If a player makes a choice to attack a guard, do you then say "ok we know the PCs are powerful enough to kill many guards, do you want to pay a fine and have this over with/ do some jail time, or see how an hour long battle with waves of guards plays out"?

    the issue i run into in my games is trying to have the NPCs have meaningful and true reactions without it bogging down the game. At a certain point it is on the players to know that attacking someone in civilization can result in boring, drawn out fights, but how do you play out a situation like "player attacks guard" without it being boring?

    1. Are they powerful enough to kill many guards?
      In the D&D games I run, any individual can be overpowered and restrained. The threat of a dozen guards is a very real danger, even to a mid level party. And if the players just kill the guards? Well, that's what happens then. Players are free to act however they want, killing the guards, not killing the guards, etc. The important thing is that the world responds in an interesting way.

      In essence, every humanoid and bandit they kill is a guard for their tribe. Why is it suddenly different when they begin to do the same to lawful people? Not because it's harder.

      It's not even necessary to play it out. Let them kill the guards, the world reacts. A popular cognitive distortion is that evil people should be punished. Sometimes they aren't.

      The average length of a fight in my game is about 10 minutes IRL. Evil dwarf and a dozen henchmen in an oubliette from last week? 15 minutes, 1 pc death, 1 dead dwarf 'evil hero'.

      The encounters with the non-player characters, as well as the discussion over the nature of problems and reality in play is the game. It doesn't bog it down.

      In general, if the outcome of a fight isn't in doubt, it shouldn't be played out. This way all conflict is either dangerous (i.e. not boring) or a choice that affects the game reality ina new way (i.e. not boring).


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