Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Check for Traps

Traps, you are unsatisfying for players and provide no drama, just non-sequiteur moments of grief. This is how traps seem to function in most dungeon games:
  1. Hit-Point Tax: You're walking down a corridor and thwack a blade drops down from the ceiling and robs you of 1d6 hit points. Not meant to kill or disable you, but to wear you down, maybe force you to use magic or a potion to get those hp back. Might also slow the game down in case D&D is too fast-paced for you, as players begin to check laboriously for traps every 5 feet.
  2. Saving Throw-away: The floor drops out from under you and you will either leap to safety or plunge into a pit, depending on the result of a die roll. No drama here, cause there's no choice to be made on the part of the player. It's truth or consequences.
  3. Red Wire or Blue Wire?: You're presented with a choice, with no clue as to which is the correct one. One chest will open to reveal a 10-pound bag of sugar. The other chest is filled with giant wasps. Will tweaking the living statue's nipple clockwise deactivate it or put it into Berzerk mode? Again, no drama, because there's no real choice. 
  4. This way to the Boss: Enough of this aimless wandering through my dungeon. I have placed this slide trap here to deliver you into my lair half-stunned, on your ass, and unprepared. I had thought of putting the trap just inside the front gate, but I thought it was best to let you go up against some of my weaker minions and do a little plundering first just to warm up for me.
So what are some features of a trap element that contributes to the narrative?
  1. Eluctable at a price of your choosing. Sure, you can grab on to the edge of the pit. Do you want to drop your sword, shield, or both? You're falling into a hedge of punji sticks coated with orc droppings. Think quickly! I cast wall of ice  to cover up the sharp spikes!
  2. Makes its presence known, but not its solution. A wall of fire? How could we get past it? (Players suggest various solutions, all of which will probably work, but when they get through alive, they have OWNED that trap).
  3. Actually traps you. A trap, as the name implies, should trap you. The real drama starts when the boss's minions arrive to see what the Have-a-Heart in Sector Three has caught this time.


  1. Agreed. Though some of the other types, while annoying, can be used as a warning ("Hey, who set that trap if no one has been here in . . . Oh no.") if used properly.

  2. 1. A trap without a tell is unfair to the players. If they miss the tell, oh well.

    2. Again, the tell, once the dice are thrown it's up to your character's skill, your luck, and the dice.

    3. And again, the tells.

    Basically it's all about fairness, while still being scary and awesome. Last year I designed a Halloween adventure where the characters delved into a labyrinth specifically created by a Lich to protect his phylactery. It was absolutely covered in traps, but not a single trap was unfair. Additionally there was no "boss" at the end. The only thing to be found at the end was the phylactery itself. But after spending 24+ (in game) hours avoiding traps... carefully walking past inanimate skeleton guards, and swimming through pitch black water with something stirring around inside, they were extremely cautious about entering the rune marked chamber with the bauble on a pedestal.

    One of these days I am going to rewrite that adventure for use in any system, and for eyes other than my own. Traps can be amazing, they just have to be done right. =)

  3. I never really liked traps as presented in any version of D&D. It seems like traps would be primarily used to kill intruders, in which case the D&D ones tend to be too forgiving (not that it would be fun to have your PCs suddenly find themselves in inescapable situations.) The minor stuff used in gaming seems insincere and serves little useful purpose except to give thieves something to use their meager skills on. I would much prefer elaborate riddle-traps where the PCs would have to willingly engage a situation (weird room, etc.) and face setbacks for it if they failed. Some kind of hints or suggestion beforehand would make it ominous, and make PCs question whether they wanted to try and defeat the trap room.


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