Guest Writer: Nick Monitto
I came to find the “Dungeons & Dragons” game when both it and I were quite young, still in the single digits of age. Any time that I was out for a shopping trip, I hoped we might find our way to the wondrous Duane’s Toyland or the Waldenbooks shops that inhabited all of our malls. While all of those are sadly gone and lost to the ages, I can still remember the joy I had in exploring their shelves of role playing games. Being larger stores, rather than little independent shops, they dealt largely in the products of TSR and its best-selling games. But here and there, tucked among the hardcover handbooks and softcover modules, I would find some items with a distinctly different look.
One of the biggest publishers to get on those shelves was Flying Buffalo with their “Catalyst” line. Marketed for use with any fantasy role playing game system, their books were not officially licensed by TSR but were easily compatible with “Dungeons & Dragons”. They had some pretty straightforward titles such as “Treasure Vault” or the “City Book” series that would provide material usable by pretty much anyone’s campaign, no matter what the level. But when one thinks of this company and its books, there is usually only one name that comes to mind, often in a hushed whisper.
(Looking around) Okay, I think we are safe. For now…
Seriously, though, I would venture to guess that the “Grimtooth’s Traps” series was the best-selling thing that Catalyst had to offer. The original book was a marvel, almost a shock when I first read it. I was used to sourcebooks that were just simple lists of items, minimal descriptions and effects. Or the modules that gave you paths and story lines for the adventurers to follow. They could be tough, but most of them were not too bad. You felt as though most any party could get through if they kept their wits about them, and did not have too bad of luck with the fall of the dice.
The only big exception was Gary Gygax’s infamous S1 “Tomb of Horrors” dungeon. Evolved from some of his early work, designed to ‘take care of’ a few of the super powered players around his gaming table, it was a nightmare of devastating tricks and traps. But even then, it was still a module with a story, a path (or two) to follow, and an objective to complete. Grimtooth did not offer up anything of the sort.
Simply enough, it was a book of traps. No story. Barely a bit of background before diving right in. Page after page after page of bizarre, diabolical, and deadly traps. They were described in almost loving detail and most of them featured little diagrams or illustrations, in case you might have trouble envisioning what would befall the poor adventurers.
In all the times that I ran games of “Dungeons & Dragons”, I never used any of these on my players. But I did buy the books and I enjoyed reading them! I suppose I was a bit too nice, never wanting to create the kinds of total party kill that could easily ensue from these creations. But the curious scientist in me, the one who liked to learn how and why things worked, found the books utterly fascinating. Many of the creations were, of course, dependent on magic and monsters and things only of the fantasy realm. But more than a little bit of what was going on came courtesy of simple, reliable engineering. Weights, pulleys, fulcrums and levers, there was a lot of mechanics at work there, sometimes creating the best results. The realistic (well, such as it was in a game), slow in coming kind of results. I mean, anyone can set a magic trap to shoot fireballs down a hallway or something like that. But to design and set up a mechanism that, for example, might resemble an office desk swinging ball toy, that was clever about a thousand times over to a 10 year old me!
The original book was followed by “Grimtooth’s Traps Too” (yes, really!), and then the (barely explained) follow ups “Fore” and “Ate”. The next book, “Lite”, took things down a bit to feature “…Kinder, gentler traps, meant to maim or embarrass your adventurers”, something perhaps a bit more mainstream. But lest you fear that that meant the end of deadly doom, fear not! Having given us more traps than most anyone could make use of in a few lifetimes, Grimtooth moved into another direction with “Grimtooth’s Traps Bazaar”. Described by the publisher as including more than 100 “magical, technological, possessed, and useful items”, this was a bit of a surprise in the product line. A surprise that only lasted for a few pages, of course.
The book takes the form of a retail catalog to present its offerings. While it is not detailing door, hallway, and room traps like in the past, it still uses the same system of one (mildly harmful) to five (completely, utterly deadly) skulls to rate its contents. First up is the “Dungeon Equipment Accessory Department”, featuring a variety of equipment such as the “Eternal Flame”. To give an idea of what you would be dealing with here, this is its description:
“ETERNAL FLAME- You’ll always be warm with this brazier which cannot be extinguished. There’ll be no more worries about the cook fire going out! The only way to stop the fire is to empty and seal the brazier, thus taking the fuel out of the system. But remember, anything placed within the brazier will add to the flame! Anything at all, even air! Under normal circumstances, this will not be a problem, but if the brazier is open and placed in a closed room, the air in the room will slowly be consumed. If the open brazier is immersed in water, the water will be consumed, which will slowly raise the temperature of the surrounding water to a boil. If your finger is placed in the brazier, it will burn, and your hand will most likely cook! Any rope, string, or whatever that droops into the brazier, even if it is otherwise empty, will burn! Very dangerous to have around.
And that is an item which is on the ‘mild’ side, rated One Skull. So as you can see, while some of the items have some good use and value, most of them are quite risky to even try and use. Note also the system-neutral aspect of this product (as well as the previous Traps books). The writers do not attempt to give statistics for saving throws, damages, etc. with these items. It is left to an individual Dungeon Master to decide how deadly they are willing to be with these.
Moving on in the catalog, the second group is called “More Beast Sellers”, a strange kind of pet shop, you could say. While “The Genuine Crow Bar” may appear to be just a typical piece of delving equipment, I assure you that it really does belong in this department! The “Custom Corner” is stocked with some truly odd ball creations. Even the ones that seem benign, such as “Taranwn’s Magic Lamp” are likely destined to cause the user trouble that they did not expect.
Moving on, the next section is labeled “Infernal Machines”. This is where we really see the evidence that Catalyst (and Grimtooth) have moved into a more modern age, as the book’s title page had suggested this volume for use in “Fantasy, Occult, or Cyberpunk Games”. Of course, ‘modern’ can become ‘retro’ before you know it; the second example in this group is “Fast-Forwarded to Death aka The VCR of Dorian Gray”. Some of your younger games may not know the name from the Oscar Wilde classic; indeed, some of them may not even know what a VCR was, either!
“Grimtina’s Fashions to Die For” features wearable items like the “Get a Grip Gauntlet” from Grimtooth’s younger sister, who was introduced to readers in the previous “Lite” book. The “Bargain Basement” offers a variety of mostly modern items, including the “Terrible Toilet Seat” (don’t ask!!).
The most amusing part of it all for me, though, was the final section of the book. “Grimtooth’s Bazaar” is not just a metaphorical creation here; it is in fact a shop! Included are maps and descriptions to make this as an actual store location in your role playing game of choice. I still do not know how much of the dangerous and deadly things I would want to put into an actual game, but I can hardly resist the idea of dropping the Bazaar into a dark little corner of a game world, just to see what might end up happening.
The Grimtooth’s Traps series was always enjoyable, but I would have to admit that after all of the previous books, the base idea was perhaps running a little bit thin. The idea of him creating a shop filled with odd and sadistic merchandise was definitely an amusing one. If you have been a fan of the series, I would recommend this as a good addition with some variety. I think it would also be a good ‘entry level’ choice for gamers who were not familiar with the previous books. If you look at these items and think, “These are pretty good, but I need a whole room that works this way…” seek out the older works, too!
Nick Monitto is a gaming geek who came of age on the classic games of the 1970’s and 80’s. He is currently perusing the prospectus for a “Grimtooth’s Bazaar” franchise location.