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Troy’s Crock Pot: Falling into a trap

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.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Falling into a trap"

#1 Comment By Razjah On May 25, 2011 @ 9:32 am

I think that if you keep a good game face and run this like an normal trap it would work great even with the players complaining about how their characters could have avoided the trap.

A round pillar with strange runes is in the center of the room. Once lush carpets lay decaying around the pillar and leading to the the door you entered and the other to the far side of the room. The dust lays heavily here, undisturbed for ages. What do you do?

If anyone asks about the runes, they appear to be something imporant (magical runes, ancient dwarf runes, whatever you need). If they step on the carpets leading to the pillar the floor gives way. The DC to spot this would be vary high. It is a floow taht gives away with weight and it has a large carpet covering it while the character was distracted by the runes. Reflex to avoid falling (again difficult do to size and the rotted floor giving away quickly). the rogue could make it. The fighter and wizard? They went down. The cleric almost made it, he grabbed the edge but that gave way due to age and lack of upkeep. He tumbled down into the dark.

Okay, mr. rogue, what do you do now? If he stays he breaks the cardinal rule of not splitting the party. If he ever wants to see his friends again he might as well jump in. If he stays he is in danger because he is alone, without magic, healing, or a large combat presence. If you do it this way, the characters can move on, but if they are skilled enough they gain a choice of moving or staying where they are.

#2 Comment By SavageTheDM On May 25, 2011 @ 11:06 am

I think my favorite source of fantasy or sci-fi material is shows and books from the late 80s and early 90s. I have used these kinds of “traps” before in my games to help tell the story and I think its due to my love of old school nerdy stuff. Just last week I had run my first game of SpaceFudge and at the end the party having just barely escaped from the now taken over space station typed in the coordinates to there next location and ended up just over the surface of a unknown planet and being hounded by cyborgs.
One of my other DM’s used this tatic alot too. Force the players to willing go with the trap (usually because the alternitive was a quick death by some really high powered monster or attack)

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 25, 2011 @ 11:53 am

[1] – I like the way you think.
[1] – Making the trap/avenue the lesser of two alternatives is a way of keeping “choice” alive and well in the encounter, and works to alleviate the the feel of “railroading.”

#4 Comment By DireBadger On May 26, 2011 @ 11:47 am

I think the classic movie way is to have one of the PCs fall into the hole (secretly assign a DC of (1+lowest roll)), and suffer some falling damage (not too much.)

While the party deliberates on what to do, there’s noise on the ground floor; now it’s a choice for the players. Either all go down, face a fight with the party split, or perhaps manage to haul up the fallen party member really really quick. Every result could work fine in The Movie.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 26, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

Well, this is curious. I was expecting to be challenged on this by GMs who favor tactical gaming. Anyone out there with a different viewpoint, anyone who thinks traps are challenges for good reason?

#6 Comment By Volcarthe On May 26, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

I think both types of traps are perfectly acceptable if you present them in the right way.

If you’re using it as a transition, it’s perfectly fine as long as people realize what you’re doing.

I love my trapspringers to death, but if i realize it isn’t a challenge to overcome then i don’t see the problem. It’s apples and oranges at that point.