Looking to recharge creatively, I’ve been diving back into an old friend, my collection of pulp fiction. Specifically, this bit of inspiration came from the Robert E. Howard Conan tale, “The Servants of Bit-Yakin.”
The first part of the serialized novella is a cliffhanger, for Conan stumbles into a trap as he explores the jungle palace ruins. It reads:
He turned toward the arch — with appalling suddenness the seemingly solid flags splintered and gave way under his feet. Even as he fell he spread wide his arms and caught the edges of the aperture that gaped beneath him. The edges, crumbled off under his clutching fingers. Down into utter darkness he shot, into black icy water that gripped him and whirled him away with breathless speed.
Here, the use of a trap is not an obstacle to be overcome. For storytelling reasons, it is inescapable, in fact. But it does no harm to him, except to sweep him away to another section of the ruins. It is Conan’s avenue to another part of the adventure.
I think for many GMs (myself included) and especially those who game in D&D’s 3.5 and 4E versions or Pathfinder — we’ve become accustomed to using traps simply as a tool that serves as a challenge for the game’s tactical aspects.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Such an approach makes them quite useful in constructing engaging encounters. In fact, the rules use a rating system to describe the lethality of the traps and their appropriateness to test each adventuring party’s skill level. In this regard, traps are like puzzles, and they carry with them a consequence for failure.
But going back to the example of this Conan story, the trap is not a challenge. It’s a literary device to advance the plot. It could have been a magic teleporting circle, a slide, a long hallway or any number of conveyances — except in REH’s deft hands, it’s the thrilling conclusion to one part of the story. The handhold gives way and Conan is carried away by the underground stream.
For storytelling reasons, it might serve us well to consider using traps in this fashion occasionally. Standard traps, such as those detailed in rulebooks, are actually stop signs in the adventure. The characters must stop and deal with the trap, just as they would have to stop and deal with a monster.
But this other trap is an avenue to another adventure. And it’s not unknown to D&D-style games. But I think its use has been forgotten amid the passage of years and the growing piles of supplements. But early on, using a trap this way was encouraged.
Looking at my copy of the 1980 Moldvay version of the D&D Basic rules, there’s a sample dungeon within. And Room No. 4 of the East Tower features a trap beneath a rug in the floor. And it’s not a trap/challenge. It’s a trap/avenue, a means of getting to the second level of the dungeon (which if you look at the cutaway diagram of the dungeon by Erol Otus, that second level is a loooooooooooong way down).
Before using this kind of trap, however, GMs need to be prepared to cope with player reaction, which will probably boil down to this:
Players, being conditioned to coping with the trap/challenge, might well jump up in arm-waving exasperation or game-stopping reactions, unwilling to be dropped down a hole and swept away without calling upon their various abilities to overcome the trap. “Surely I perceived the trap and would have avoided it!” “My reflexes are amazing, can’t I just step aside?” “My character had his climbing gear ready just for this eventuality.” And so on.
This point, it becomes a matter of trust. The players have to be convinced the GM isn’t using a trap to wear down the characters’ hit point totals with some arbitrary falling damage roll. Moreover, this is very much an instance where the GM has actually robbed the players of “choice.” The trap/avenue is the very definition of railroading. The players can’t get off these rails (at least for the moment).
But it’s for the sake of story, and for transporting the PCs to another adventure site, where they can explore, fight and uncover treasure at their own pace and direction, once again.
It may take some adroit handling to send the players hurtling from one part of the dungeon to another by means of a trap/avenue. But described with a bit of flair, and by making it clear the adventures are still the heroes of the story, it can be part of a rewarding session.
Or a cliffhanger in its own right.