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It’s a Trap!

Posted By Scott Martin On November 23, 2011 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

Admiral Ackbar saying "It's a Trap"Last week, some friends were discussing adventure design for publication, but the conversation drifted towards a topic I hadn’t really thought about in a long time. Traps.

Way Back When

Way back in ancient days, in basic and early AD&D, traps were horrific. You fail your disable trap skill and you’re only one save versus poison from a grim death. Bigger than that, though, were the super traps. Grimtooth’s Traps was a series of books devoted to fiendish traps, lovingly explaining exactly how they worked, were installed, and even if they could be reset.

The traps were often deadly; a horrific maiming was often as merciful as they’d get. Knights of the Dinner table continues that fine tradition, with its “Deadly Trappings” articles. They’re typically system neutral, often with a sketch of the trap, its lure, or other elements that make the trap feel realistic.

We ruefully talked about the characters we’d lost, often describing the fiendish traps in some detail some ten or more years after they’d slaughtered our hapless PCs. They made quite an impression on us.

These Days

We started talking about the old traps, because we’d all run games recently where the traps were all wind-up, no follow through. Josh mentioned a giant boulder trap, described as huge and rumbling like the Indiana Jones movies, that only inflicted 3d6 damage when it finally ran you down–after you had a chance to duck out of the way. Or the magical axe trap tied to a floating log river crossing; somehow, when you leaped onto the log, an axe would swing around and bite into you. We couldn’t figure out how that would work–I suggested that the PCs must be spinning the logs like lumberjacks do, with axes attached to the initially submerged side–but there was no reasonable mechanism. We shrugged it away as magic, since there wasn’t a much better explanation.

Not all “modern” traps are so weak, of course. In D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, a Symbol of Death results in instant death for 150 HP of people, if they fail their fortitude saves, just for glancing at (or walking over) the symbol. No cumbersome trap mechanics required… but also no satisfaction either. Just “you enter the room, make a save…”

In recent editions, traps often take place as part of the battle–as one element, one nuisance–rather than its own encounter. They tend to injure or impose conditions–they can be nasty, but the damage is usually something you’ll survive if something doesn’t take advantage of you while you’re weakened.

The Differences

The way traps work reflects the rest of the system. In old editions, low level adventurers were unlikely to survive–randomly dying to a trap isn’t that different from dying because you’re a fighter with 3 HP fighting goblins. Similarly, the expectation that PCs are heroes from the start, from 3rd edition onward, means that “random deaths”–particularly without notice or a chance to influence the result–feel more arbitrary.

Skill mechanics have altered who solves the trap. In many ways, old trap designers needed a plausible mechanism because it had to be clearly explained and interacted with by the players. If the players jammed a crowbar in the mechanism, you had to have an idea of how it worked to adjudicate the results. In many ways, it was a duel of wits between the trap designer and the players. More modern systems shift the burden of solving the trap onto the character. Skills like perception, spot, or search let the GM highlight the trigger–the stone floor is less rough in that patch, you glimpse the tripwire moments before blundering into it, etc. Similarly, deciding to interact with the trap is less suicidal–you probably have something like a 50% chance of disarming it (after modifiers) once you’re aware of it, unlike older systems where even alerted, your chance by the mechanics was often only 12-20%. Conversely, old traps used to be evadable if you properly described evading it, while modern traps usually require a skill roll to avoid setting them off, even if you identify the mechanism. Can you balance as you shuffle along the lip of the pit, or successfully jam the mechanism with your crowbar? There’s probably a skill or stat roll to find out.

Trap Types

We have old traps: often deadly, cunning, and meant to be outwitted by the players. Overcoming them often felt like you’d outwitted them yourself. Modern traps are often a nuisance, a complement to a battle, rather than a replacement for it (especially in terms of screen time). When they are overcome, it often feels like it’s the PC who solved it–with their superior training, often a result of your decisions in character generation.

Your preferences on traps will probably align with your feelings about puzzles. Do you want puzzles solved by the characters, or puzzles the players beat? Whichever you decide, you’ll probably have similar expectations for solving traps–since, in the end, a trap is a specific type of puzzle. (For more on puzzles, see Johnny’s Five – Five Things That Puzzles In RPGs Should Do.)

Similarly, the deadliness of traps has a lot of knock-on effects. If walking down a corridor too hastily results in character death, you’ll have characters who move at a crawl, tapping the floor with their pole, peering around every corner with mirrors, etc. It has a very different feel from a group rushing through the battlefield, turning traps back on the locals, and pushing through to their destination.

Different types of traps are explored in John Arcadian’s Traps as More than Something to Disable. The Trap as Dungeon might be perfect for your game–a giant trap ready for interaction!

Building a Better Trap

Is there a way to preserve the virtues of detailed, memorable traps, with dreadful consequences, without dragging play to a halt or turning bold adventurers into hesitant mice? In general, I don’t think so–traps are a reflection of the game world and its general rules.

In a specific instance, though, you might succeed in combining their virtues. For a modern game (like Pathfinder or D&D3+, you should probably stick to the default trap types (bleeders, inconveniences) throughout most of your adventures. When you switch modes–to player solved, detailed and modeled traps–you’ll need to sign post it clearly.

For the Trapped Tomb, you should provide sufficient definition of traps by default (like an old-school adventure), but skills should highlight key features, lead the character to muse about the required chain thickness, or otherwise provide additional clues about mechanisms. Provide ample evidence of the traps’ deadliness, to persuade players that these traps play by different rules. These traps aren’t just softening you up for the monsters, they’re the whole threat. You signal that you’ve toggled the world expectations for this location.

Can such an approach succeed? It depends on how accurately I’ve diagnosed the differences and their causes. Players might miss the prompt if they’ve grown used to their characters solving traps, and might grow frustrated that their highly intelligent wizard or their trap-crafting rogue can’t solve the problem. After all, the character is an expert…

How do you handle traps? Do you vary by system, or do they know that DM Steve always expects the players to solve the trap, whatever the rulebook may imply? Where have you seen good traps for recent editions, ones that are interesting and memorable? I look forward to hearing how you all tackle traps!

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "It’s a Trap!"

#1 Comment By Svengaard On November 23, 2011 @ 6:50 am

I played a rogue once and got nicked with a poison-blade trap on a chest. It took two party clerics to keep me alive until a local priest with cure poison could come by and fix that. It was a low-powered campaign and that felt like the GM was cheating or playing us vs. him. I don’t want to ever be ‘that’ GM.
I’ve tried dungeon crawls in the past and have realized that in my style of campaign they should be used sparingly if it all. This goes well with a party that doesn’t have a rogue-like character.
To that end I keep the traps pretty light and simple: mostly I set alarms. Tripwires are common in my setting. They’re non-lethal which is important in a highly populated or busy area. If a player botches a Spot check and/or a DEX roll then they’ve alerted the local guards. This way I can keep the excitment going without bogging down a long, tedious crawl.
Failing that one roll on find/disable traps can send you off to the cleric and I think that’s a little unfair and annoying.
If I ever get a rogue then maybe I’ll throw in some simple traps, but for now I’ll just use them rarely.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On November 23, 2011 @ 8:31 am

Grimtooth’s goes back to the days of White Box D&D, and the design of their traps was often an exercise in being smart as a player rather than rolling dice, as has been pointed out many times in The Stew when discussing “old school” rpgs.

One favourite tactic I remember with fondness (as a player) was the Parchment Floor, which looked like stone but hid pits, water or often was just the opening movement of something altogether more sneaky (and ridiculous).

Example: You enter a room with an altar at one end. Being smarter than you were last time you entered a room like this you walk around the perimeter, poking the floor with your Long Poking Stick until you stand before the altar. Upon it is an ornate box, wrapped in chains and locked to the altar by them.

You defeat this annoyance and open the box, which contains much stuff, but discover in the process that the box itself is made of solid gold (or platinum, or orichalcum, or whatever your player character wants most in all the world)!

You grasp the box, possibly needing the help of your friends, and lift the box.

Which is, of course, holding the end of a thread which in turn is securing a rope that is holding up a large, square rock, hidden high in the ceiling. The rock falls – but not on the party, on the middle of the room which of course you were not foolish enough to cross since you weren’t born yesterday and know well of Parchment Floors and Pits O’ Nastiness.

In this case, the nastiness is a Gelatinous Cube, sat in a square pit under the Parchment Floor. The rock hits the parchment at high speed, continues unabated into the pit where it squeezes Gelatinous Cube Gunge up the sides and into the air wantonly. Everyone gets a dousing in Gelatinous Cube Gunge.

But are they downhearted? Yes.

#3 Comment By Sudain On November 23, 2011 @ 8:39 am

I’m planning on building a room-trap so the players have to think it through to solve the puzzle(or suffer). Pointing out the traps deadlines before the step into it is a great idea – I think the players will resent me less if I do that. :)

I’ve always felt traps were a little lackluster and needed the far more devious – after all they were designed to kill intruders, so why don’t they do their job? I’ll re-skim them and see if using them to bleed/hamper will have them do a better job. Thank you for the idea. :)

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On November 23, 2011 @ 9:11 am

@Sudain – “after all they were designed to kill intruders, so why don’t they do their job?”

This is, of course, the dichotomy present in the RPG. Lethalities must be ridiculously low in order that entertainment be high.

However, perhaps there is a happy medium. Consider the example of the second Brendan Frasier “Mummy” movie – a trap is sprung on the kid which compels action by everyone else.

To stealz it whole: Imagine a door which has an Indiana Jones mechanism – the knob is deep in a small recess just big enough for an unarmoured hand and arm to enter up to the shoulder. The character reaches in and turns the knob, the door begins to open and SNAP! a bracelet fastens around the wrist of the opener. When he pulls out his arm, a Magic Mouth (or automaton) intones a rhyme that gives the nature of the quest that must be performed to open the bracelet along with the consequences of simply prying it apart and of taking too long to complete the quest. These consequences can be dire without being fatal – permanent loss of a level, characteristic damage and so forth.

By all means have the trap be susceptible to die rolling it away – but put a huge CR on doing so on account of you can’t see into the trapped area well, and not at all when you have a hand in there. The bracelet can be a combination of magic and mechanics requiring several simultaneous things be done to open it without finishing the quest, or it could simply be magical and induce clumsiness and a negative circumstance on attempts to spring it open.

A railroad, but a hopefully entertaining one.

Have a few untrapped mechanisms of this type to allay “raving trap sensibility syndrome” before introducing the whammy and Bob is your mother’s brother.

#5 Comment By CalebTGordan On November 23, 2011 @ 9:43 am

When I can run a homebrewed game I like to mix it up. I also do my best to place traps where they make sense.

A deadly trap in a well used corridor is not practical, but a trap that alerts people to intruders could prove to be even more of a problem to the PCs. Deadly traps are best left in places that will see very little traffic, are kept somewhat secret, and are generally choke points.

As for the traps themselves, I like to mix the descriptions with the skill rolls. If they spot that something is wrong and choose to spend the time to investigate then I give them a little more information, with the level of detail dependent on the skill roll. Then, I ask how they think it should be disabled and ask for a skill roll to go along with it. If they were right about how it could be disabled (or bypassed,) and the roll beats the DC the trap is either disabled or avoided. If they were wrong on how they could disable it, I still let them roll, but the DC is either much higher or nearly impossible. Why not totally impossible? There needs to be a chance. Telling a player that a rolling a 20 is his only hope is better than saying it is impossible.

I don’t mind telling player’s the DC if they did well in investigating the trap. Should that DC be beyond even a 20, it allows the group to brainstorm ways to aid and buff the person disabling the trap. After a few minutes of buffing, aiding, or reinvestigation the entire party starts to feel involved, and even if the trap goes off everyone has a sense of being part of a team. They all have that feeling that they did all they could.

As for the traps themselves, I try not to make them one shot kills. If anything, I try to make them resources sinks. I don’t mind having a trap that deals enough damage that it kills a PC, but I want the party to have spells that could raise the PC if that were to happen.

My favorite way to use traps though is in a combat situation. You often can’t have traps in a battle field, but when it makes sense they make combat that much more intense. Kobold and gnoll lairs are notorious for this, but undead filled tombs (where the trigger has lifesense,) and in the forest against bandits (they know where the covered pits and snares are,) makes enough sense. In those cases, the PCs might not have time or availability to disable traps, and the bad guys are constantly pushing or luring PCs into them.

My last method of traps is a death trap, and that is the dungeon trap. The entire dungeon is involved in the trap. My best example of this was in a labyrinth like dungeon. It had one entrance and exit and had many winding and turning tunnels that ended in dead ends, with only one path leading to the end treasure. There were plenty of chambers will challenges, doors, fights, and small traps. The very last chamber was the trigger for the main trap, and the PCs could have spotted it if they took the time. When I ran this dungeon, they rushed in and grabbed the treasure item they were after. The dungeon started flooding rapidly and all the doors they had opened shut tight. They had a limited amount of time, needed to force the doors open, and needed to remember to correct path back to the beginning. With no map available to tell them where to go they almost died of drowning, and one of the PCs even passed out right before the last door was opened.

Most of what I learned came from experience, but gleaning ideas from sources outside of gaming helps. One good book series that uses traps in cool ways is the Fablehaven series. In almost every book there is a trap filled dungeon the main characters have to navigate, and some of the traps and challenges are really cool. I suggest reading those books to get ideas on how to use traps as an big encounter.

#6 Comment By Sudain On November 23, 2011 @ 9:46 am

@Roxysteve:) I’ve always thought that spiked pit traps, and the like were intended to be effective and do their job of killing people. So I expected PCs and NPCs to die by them; not just drink a potion and continue to stroll down the hallway as i nothing happened after getting a harpoon to the head (I’ve seen more than a few players do this). I didn’t understand that their purpose wasn’t to outright kill – but to hamper the intruders.

I agree, there probably is a happy medium. I guess I just need to work towards that and see how that works out. I love the example BTW. :) That would drive me mad (in a good way) trying to get it off.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On November 23, 2011 @ 9:54 pm

@Svengaard – Trip wires and alarms are easy to fit anywhere, and won’t get you sued when the wrong person stumbles into them. (Innocents dying is a little trickier.)
@Roxysteve – They were crazy traps. Crazy!
@Sudain – It’s a tough line to walk. Killing people makes sense (to a trap designer), but isn’t much fun when it isn’t well sign posted, when it costs you a cool character, etc.
@Roxysteve – Great example!
@CalebTGordan – Resource sinks work well–particularly when they’re fighting alongside the enemy! It does lead to a different feel than a lethal trap, but it combines well with everything else.

#8 Comment By 77IM On November 23, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

If a game is a series of interesting decisions, then a good trap is one that forces the players to make some interesting decisions. The key is to think about how the players might bypass the trap and/or cope with the consequences of triggering it.

For example:

1. A hidden pit trap with spikes at the bottom: BORING. You either notice the trap and lay planks over it, or you fall in and take damage and say “well, ouch,” and then move on. There’s no player input; it’s a game-play speed-bump. Whether the spikes are a nuisance (1d4 damage) or lethal (make a difficult save vs. poison, or die) is irrelevant because the players don’t really get to make a decision either way.

2. A hidden pit trap with zombies at the bottom: INTERESTING. Because falling into the trap requires tough decisions about how to extract yourself or your ally from a pit full of horrible shambling undead.

3. A completely visible pit trap with letters and you have to spell a word like the puzzle floor in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade: INTERESTING. The players can see this trap a mile away and are given an explicit means of bypassing it, but they have to think in order to do it. If stepping on the wrong letter means you fall into a bottomless chasm, well, don’t step on the wrong letter.

So, again, to make a trap interesting, make sure it creates interesting decision points. Level of lethality is important, but not as important as level of interactivity. A game is a series of interesting decisions.

#9 Pingback By News from Around the Net: 25-NOV-2011 | Game Knight Reviews On November 25, 2011 @ 4:04 am

[...] Scott Martin at Gnome Stew brought up a topic this week I used to love like Fred in the Scooby Gang – traps! He raises some interesting points about merging old-school traps with a more skills-led approach. [...]

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On November 25, 2011 @ 7:54 am

@Scott Martin – “They were crazy traps. Crazy!”

You’re only saying that because you once got a faceful of Gelatinous Cube gunk, didn’t you?

#11 Comment By MonsterMike On November 25, 2011 @ 9:33 am

Agree with 77IM. An adventure full of difficult-to-spot traps slows the game down tremendously, creating excessive player caution, and they don’t actually add to the fun if they are just a “Save or Die” type of challenge. I usually tell my players at the start of an adventure that they won’t have to worry about random traps in random places. When there’s a trap, they’ll either see it and have to interact with it, or I will be dropping big hints if there is a trap at a plot-appropriate place. “There is a pattern of stonework in the floor like a checkerboard, with all the dark flagstones slightly recessed. The walls are lined with carvings of faces, and there are holes in the stone where each mouth is. The idol sits on a pedestal at the back of the room.” Using tropes like this shouldn’t be dismissed as just stealing or being lazy. It can also serve as a way to alert your players: Hey, this room is one big trap!


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