Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Hierarchy of Egress

I've started to get the feeling that player actions in a dungeon might be generally predictable. If this is true, designers should know because it will effect how every dungeon is explored and experienced. (Do they know this for video games? They must. They could easily run hundreds of playtesters through fps maps and record their every action)

I had this idea when I noticed that players found checking behind curtains irresistible both times they were encountered in my recent session. Then, when I thought about it, I realized I would do the same as a player. Maybe a curtain feels like more of a threat, less "wall-like," even though a door might be used just as easily by monsters trying to get at a party.

I hypothesize that any time curtains appear in a room, players will want to check behind them and if they conceal an exit, players will use that exit before opening the "hard" exits. You might even be able to channel a party in a dungeon by covering certain passages with curtains, the passages you want them to take. I also have a feeling this might extend to a general tendency to use certain exits before others. I'll call this the Hierarchy of Egress. (Or, if that sounds too snooty-academic, we could call it Door Priority, which has a nice ring to it.)

I know that context and player knowledge will make a difference here, but, all those things being equal, players will use exits in this order:
  • drapes/curtains
  • secret door
  • concealed door
  • hatch
  • trapdoor
  • door
  • stairs up
  • stairs down
Or, something like that, anyway. We'll have to pay attention as we DM and make adjustments to the order or decide if the whole idea is rubbish.


  1. Curtains do draw a lot of attention. Not sure if it's really the curtains that draw attention or simply a dressed up door. Any dressed up door seems to draw players like flies.

    Which of the following doors has more going for it?
    An Oak Door.
    An Oak Door with claw marks and old blood stains.
    An Oak Door that is slightly ajar.
    A curtain blocking off an exit just inside a decorative archway.
    An iron door surrounded by gargoyle-like carvings with arcane runes scratched on it's surface. Flames of green belch out of a pair of brass dragon-headed lamps set to each side of the door.

    I know which one is getting my regular players attention.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think this is what I meant by context: if that ornate iron door indicates something a party is looking for, yeah. If I'm high enough level to feel some confidence, yeah.

    If it's randomly encountered, though and we're low level adventurers, I and, I think, my players would be thinking 1) that door is too fancy to not be magically trapped and, 2) there is probably something really bad behind that.

    Either way, I'd say "Let's check out these other doors, we can come back."

    But your mention of "dressed up" door is interesting. Maybe any extra detail that isn't necessarily threatening will be a pull to players. "There are two doors in this room and one heavy, oak door."

    I'm not sure, there's usually consequences tied to notability in a dungeon, no?

  3. "my players would be thinking 1) that door is too fancy to not be magically trapped and, 2) there is probably something really bad behind that."

    Yeah, that could be an issue. But I'm not sure I'd trust an ordinary looking door in the same room with that one.

    I've noticed doors nailed shut and "keep out" signs also draw players like flies.

  4. Jaquays does a lot of stuff with curtains in _Caverns of Thracia_ and the Dungeoneer 'zine dungeons. Our adventuring party is called the Grey Company because they figured out that they could make cloaks of protection out of one of the uncuttable-except-for-magic-blades gray curtains in Borshak's Lair.

    The most successful group in my Blackmoor Dungeons runs at Gen Con followed an "always turn left" rule that worked really well for them in a very difficult-to-map environment. They made exceptions for doors and stairs down, but not for stairs up to levels they thought they'd already been to or for a chamber filled with gold-plated Cthuluoid statuary covered in ordure and maggots.
    - Tavis

  5. Dead last in the hierarchy are P. T. Barnum signs reading "This Way to the Egress" ...

  6. Fabulous comments, thanks!

    @Tavis, that's fascinating.

    I want to set up a test dungeon on the corner of a busy street somewhere and run people through it till I get a sense of how they'll act generally.

  7. I find something unsettling about the idea of a dungeon that is deliberately engineered to lead people in a certain direction due to their tendency to pick certain types of doorway, I'm not sure why. I suppose it ties in with the "dungeon as inimical presence" idea that is so often talked about with older editions of D&D.

    Telecanter, I may have already asked you this on this blog but have you read Christopher Manson's beautifully illustrated puzzle book "Maze"? Reading it when I was younger I quickly understood there was a "door priority" that was deliberately used to trick the reader, especially as there was at least one "closed loop" that effectively ended your chances of finding the centre.

    You can look at woefully lo-res scans of the drawings here to see what I mean:

    ...with Room 18 being a particularly creepy example.

    If you'd like any high-res scans let me know and I can take them from my copy.



  8. Andrew, thanks for the link. I vaguely remember looking longingly at that book at the store when I was younger, but I never owned it. I've been fascinated with all possible ways to approach solo play since, well, since I encountered D&D so that is cool on that account.

    I'm going to see if I can find a used copy online and try it out.

    Yeah, a dungeon channeling you is creepy. I'm not sure I'd even want to do it as a designer, but I'm curious if it's possible. It seems like it is.

  9. Hamlet probably has something to do with the impulse to check behind curtains.

  10. Hi,

    this is from computer games (Half Life 2) and shows where characters die in a level, among other information.

    Original info

    Where I found it


  11. That's exactly what I was thinking of, awesome. Thanks for sharing John.

    You might be interested in another post where I was thinking we should do something similar for dungeons: