When the Players get dirty, the DM needs to get dirtier
Written by Joe Bingaman
Frog God Games’ Bill Webb, who started out co-creating the OGL third-party company Necromancer Games, and brought us the Tome of Horrors series, has let the game masters of the world into his twisted genius of a mind with his book, Bill Webb’s Book of Dirty Tricks. This book was designed with the game master who has lost control of his campaign in mind, as it is packed full of tricks, traps, ideas, and Webb’s own House Rules to help rein in those players and characters that have gained too much power, influence, or treasure.
While Webb’s style described in this book leans heavily towards AD&D/OSRIC, with a touch of Frog God’s Sword & Wizardry mechanics, there are sidebars to assist users of 3.x and Pathfinder as well, allowing game masters of almost any mechanic make use of this book. Those who run Fifth Edition, if they feel up to the small conversion from the 3.x and Pathfinder notes, can also make use of this.
Webb is definitely heavily influenced by classic Gygax-era adventures, as he references adventures such as Tomb of Horrors, Village of Hommlet, and Hall of the Fire Giant King, among others. In the introduction, he goes as far as to recommend playing through Tomb of Horrors before using this book, if you haven’t done so already. He also draws inspiration from pop culture sources, such as the movies National Treasure, The Mummy, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Bill Webb’s Book of Dirty Tricks spreads the valuable information across nine chapters. The first chapter is mainly an extended introduction, with a brief description of each of the other chapters, as well as a small blurb on how to use the book and not blow the experience for the players. This part of any guidebook is what will make or break it, and Webb does not disappoint here. His glimpses into what is coming are enough to drag in even the most secure game master who is just browsing the local game shop.
Once you start getting into the meat of Dirty Tricks, the eight main chapters cover Webb’s own House Rules, how to handle too much treasure, situational advantage, how to waste player’s time, the classic “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and it’s counterpart, which he has aptly titled “Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing”, general trickery, and how to handle greed in a non-offensive manner. All of these topics are usually gained through experience as a game master, or these days, asking on a social media forum, but Webb’s years of insight, 17 as a developer alone, makes this book invaluable to any game master, whether you have been playing since 1974 or 2014.
A Chapter Breakdown
As you delve further into Webb’s book, you first come to his own House Rules. This section starts with his general usage of experience points, which has a unique take that can extend the life of a campaign by months, if not years. If you desire to run a slow-play campaign like those of yore, when campaigns lasted what seemed like forever, this section is for you. For example, Webb’s House Rule on gold equaling experience points (for those of you not familiar, way back in First Edition, gold was worth 1 experience point per gold piece when taken from a monster or completing a task) has a twist: the experience is only earned when it is SPENT. That right there helps out with too much treasure before he even gets to that subject in the next chapter. He also modifies the experience each monster is worth, from the amount listed to 1 experience point per hit point times the monster’s level. These together serve to slow down the rate that the characters level at, allowing the players to appreciate their character and time spent on it more.
Webb follows that with some smaller rules before he gets to the meat of this chapter: roll tables. This section has a LOT of useful tables for a game master who wants more flavor to their game, covering everything from travel to food to foraging. One of the most unique, though, is the Unusual Mechanisms for doors, which utilizes three separate d100 rolls to describe how a door opens; instead of just turning a knob or flipping a latch, that door becomes “Pry out the spiral thingy until it lines up with the yellow marker, NOT the red marker” or “Pull down on the gargoyle’s buttocks then run like hell”. Another unique table is a dual-d100 roll chart of trap concealment and complicated triggers for the traps. An example is a trap hidden in an alcove, with an object hanging nearby that holds down a vertical tripwire. Removing the object causes the tripwire to fly into the ceiling, activating the trap in the alcove. Using a table like that in conjunction with any trap, especially ones mentioned later in the trickery chapter, could really make any trap perilous, if not outright lethal.
The mastermind behind this tome of game master cunning next deals with the problem of characters that have too much treasure. Here he covers old clichés that still get used today, such as bandits and taxmen, but with a few twists. Then there are a few added in that are rarely seen, such as the old “here’s some land for a keep!” trick. Have the players granted a tract of land for a keep because of a deed they did. This will excite them, but between building costs, upkeep, and the monarch’s taxes, this will soon be a burden. Unless all of a game master’s players have iron-clad memories that go back to the early days (1974-84), or have recently played through campaigns that used these tricks, they will be caught be complete surprise.
Webb follows that up with a chapter on situational advantage, or in other words, how to use their environmental surroundings to the game master’s advantage. This is a how-to guide on using simple environmental hazards and slapstick humor, whether it be slips and falls or falling objects. Even just using a pack of predatory animals is mentioned as a way to help a game master that is in a pinch while the party is in transit, just before the reach a city to reap some reward they are due, or just to throw a wrench in their plans and knock them back down to earth after a big high point.
The next chapter deals with false leads and red herrings, more than enough to give any game master time to work around an issue, or keep players who are now used to descriptive doors and traps on their toes. This chapter will make EVERYTHING seem like it’s something secret, a trap, a solution, or deadly, and players will cringe, but also show delight, at the usage of what lies within. Whether it is a false secret door, or a bogus adventure lead that takes the characters several weeks away from the actual plot, the ideas here can lead to endless hours of fun alone as players are running about, trying to solve a puzzle or locate a lock that simply does not exist. Webb even uses the word “Unobtainium” in this chapter.
After all that is covered, the tricks get dirtier in two chapters that go hand in hand. Webb utilizes the idea of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” quite well, with ideas as simple as a cursed item to outside-the-box thinking by bringing in mensa kobolds that will make the players think “Oh, they’re just kobolds”, until the kobolds do something very un-koboldish, like using flaming oil or traps that separate the party. On the flip side, the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” will play off the former well, by making the players expect the worst and waste time and precious resources over nothing more than a lone kobold in robes with a glowing stick…and the stick turns out to be nothing more than a normal stick with faerie fire cast upon it. The twists on these two classic themes are worth the cost alone.
You would think that by this point, Webb must be running low on ideas, but no, he does not disappoint, as the next chapter on trickery should have been titled “How to make a player cry”. Things like a magic item that is only magical for a short time and secret compartments inside secret compartments can make any player groan later on, while the trap within a trap can cause the loss of a character in the blink of an eye. Webb even mentions that the classic Grimtooth’s Traps as a “great reference aid” for the latter, as it contains many examples of this trick.
Webb closes up the book with a chapter on controlling greed. Here he covers the classic collapsing treasure room, treasure in plain sight, and a few other classics, but with new twists. He also has a pretty evil one that is very cruel, but will teach a lesson, titled “The Silver Apples”. Here it is cited in a sidebar that the Potion Miscibility Table from the First Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide is still the be-all, end-all for scaring characters that try to mix potions. He follows all this with a tidy conclusion that reminds us all that “More game masters using more dirty tricks creates more skilled players. More skilled players mean more skilled game masters”, and it creates a cycle that will continue onward.
This entire book shows that the game master has absolute power, but really only when they use descriptive text to keep players thinking carefully and cautiously. With a low price at the Frog God site, it’s a steal for an 80 page book for game masters to gain some insight from one of the recent greats in the RPG design world. Webb lets us into his brain and see inside the mind that created Rappan Athuk and The Wizard’s Amulet. This book should be in every game master’s arsenal, no matter what mechanic you play.