Thursday, 24 May 2012

Trappery, part one

(image by me, there's a not-really-surprising dearth of RPG art without copyright issues)

I was talking to a friend recently (about RPGs, which we do a lot) and he mentioned that D&D traps annoyed him. I can’t really remember how it come up, but he suggested one of the problems is that although dungeoneering is a big part of games, RPGs tend to invest a lot of effort into comprehensive combat rules, while traps get bare-bones mechanics. He also said one day he’d love to play (or write) a game that had traps mechanics that were as well-developed as the combat ones. At about that point we got interrupted by something else fun and never discussed it again.

That all got me thinking, and I tend to agree that traps aren’t really very satisfactory, and I thought I’d ponder about it in writing to help keep my thoughts clear. I’m not going to claim any great originality here, I just like analysing stuff.

What is a trap anyway?

Monte Cook came up with “a magic trap is a spell or magical effect that is triggered and that is intentionally harmful to the creature doing the triggering”, but he was only talking about magic traps. I reckon that can fairly be vagued down to “a trap is a triggered effect that is detrimental to the triggerer” to cover mechanisms without distorting his intentions. I went with “detrimental” because some (like alarms) may be harmful to their overall interests without causing obvious or immediate harm.

Of course, that definition is going to cover things that aren’t ‘traps’ in the professional sense. Venus flytraps. Spore-releasing fungus patches. Weak floorboards. Broken machinery. Unexploded bombs. Showers designed for acid-based beings that find any world with liquid water uncomfortably chilly. Persistent spells for healing treants that have disastrous effects on human anatomy. These things are either environmental hazards or unintended dangers.

Depending on what we’re talking about, we might want to add a couple of extra points to the definition: “a trap is an artificial triggered effect that is intentionally detrimental to the triggerer”. At other times, though, we might very much want to think about unintentional or natural dangers at the same time as traditional traps.

Traplike things I remember seeing include:

  • A chest filled with darts
  • A door with poison needles in the lock
  • Bags of flour rigged to fall and bombard an area
  • Pits with spikes underneath
  • Patches of toxic fungus
  • A corpse riddled with rot grubs
  • Statues that animate and attack nearby intruders
  • Rooms that fill with water
  • Broken slats on a bridge
  • Artefacts that fire spells at intruders
  • Corridors with collapsible ceilings
  • Sets of whirling blades that block corridors
  • Portcullises that drop to trap intruders
  • Walls that close in to crush intruders
  • Rocks that roll down hallways
  • Chests rigged with fire traps
  • Nets that fall to trap intruders
  • Sepia snake sigils in a book
  • The old glyph of warding and so on
  • Poisoned doorknobs
  • Some kind of egg laid amongst ordinary objects
  • Thin ice
  • Damaged machinery that might harm the user when activated
There’s also a whole range of ambush monsters that can arguably come in here, especially things like assassin vines or gargoyles.

How do traps work?

When a trap comes into play, it tends to work out in one of these ways:

  • The rogue detects a trap, and disables or avoids it. They carry on with what they were doing.
  • The rogue detects a trap, fails to disable it, and takes damage. They carry on with what they were doing.
  • Nobody detects the trap. Somebody takes damage. They carry on with what they were doing.

There certainly are traps with more complicated effects – they spawn fights, or give the party a challenge to overcome – but on the whole traps are pretty simple. Is there really a problem here? Well yeah, I think there is. Several actually.

  • Traps don’t work in a narratively interesting way
  • Traps don’t work in a mechanically interesting way
  • Traps don’t usually make much narrative sense

D&D traps are usually pretty crude, narratively speaking. If nobody spots it, then someone suddenly gets an arrow in the knee, falls down a pit or sets off a spell; but there’s not much of a story to it. If they spot it, then the rogue tinkers with it for a bit and then they carry on. I’m a bit worried when “falling down a hole” sounds like the cool interesting option, but it’s true... Actually taking the effects of the trap, or disabling it, don’t often work out in an interesting way. You’re really not going to relive the glory of the trap in the tavern back in town.

Mechanically, you basically make one or two skill rolls (Spot and maybe Disable) plus resolving some damage. The skills are really abstracted down to “disable this trap” and there’s really no interaction. You don’t even need to know what it does or how. Boring.

Plausibility... that’s a bit different. It depends a lot on where the adventure’s taking place, who the antagonist is, all that stuff. Fundamentally though, there’s just too many dangerous traps lying around in places where they just don’t make much sense. I don’t have a primed bear-trap in the hallway. I bet twenty quid you don’t either (putting one down after you read that doesn’t count). In fact I’m pretty confident not even the Queen has a bear-trap, deadfall, anti-personnel mine or even the tiniest little poison needle trap in her hallway, bedroom, study or anywhere she actually goes. Because they’re flippin’ dangerous is why. You protect your gold by locking the chest, not putting in a trap that’s likely to maim you if you forget the combination, because you will forget the combination. Magic traps get a bit of a get-out here, because magic can spot intruders and only attack them – but even then it depends on the nature of the trap. “Hey, I’ll stick a magic acid-fog trap in my house. A huge cloud of caustic gas that dissolves organic and inorganic materials won’t cause any problems.” At the very least you’d have to redecorate.

Tangent: Poisonous Doorknobs

Okay, okay, I wasn’t going to do this, but my brain insists. Doorknob Smeared with Contact Poison is a real trap from the actual official D&D rules. It and its bezzies Lock Covered in Dragon Bile and Drawer Handle Smeared with Contact Poison hang around on street corners kicking walls and muttering at passers-by. Look, Wizards - what on earth possessed you to come up with this dross? These are some of the stupidest traps I can think of that look slightly plausible just long enough for someone to use them.

Let’s imagine you want to stop or harm someone who tries to get into your secret room. The following reasons not to try ‘putting poison on the doorknob’ are just off the top of my head, right now.

  • There’s a very good chance you will poison yourself
  • There’s a very good chance you will poison someone you don’t want to poison
  • How do you open the door without touching the poison? You either have to add a new door-opening mechanism, or remove and reapply the poison each time. Both are a lot of hassle, and the first only needs someone to watch you open the door to make the whole business redundant.
  • Even if you’re immune to the poison or wear gloves, touching the handle will still rub it off so it’ll need replacing. Also, now your hands are covered in poison. You only need to forget about that once. Something in your eye? Full bladder? Boyfriend just bought a puppy? Unexpected visit from the elven ambassador?
  • Any sensible thief wears gloves at all times, so the poison will be ineffective against actual thieves.
  • Many poisons lose their effectiveness if left exposed for long periods, like on a doorknob.
  • Some poisons will evaporate from a surface, like a doorknob, and become toxic vapour.
Really the only occasion I can think of when you might conceivably do something like that is if a sneaky villain spotted someone coming, nipped out and slapped a bit of poison on the door right then when they know the intruder’s coming and nobody else is going to touch it. As a systematic trap it just makes no sense whatsoever.

There are absolutely traps that are cool and interesting and complicated. They don’t tend to work out as ‘traps’ though, they come up as puzzles or obstacles to deal with. I’d like traps to be more like that, and less like arbitrary dice-rolling.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Is a dungeon right for you?

So a little while ago Shannon at ST Wild wrote an article about her Pathfinder campaign, which interested me because I’ve just switched L&L to Pathfinder. She mentioned how a dungeon-heavy campaign had put her off, which is something I’ve sensed from the L&L group and find interesting, and the end result is she wrote another article about that. What this boils down to is, this is an article based on a comment on an article responding to a comment on an article and is getting a teensy bit incestuous, but it’s my blog, dammit.
Gen Con Indy 2007 - RPG terrain board - 01

“Dungeons” are a major trope of RPGs, whether that means actual dungeons, goblin caves, bandit lairs, labyrinthine slums, office buildings, the bowels of a spaceship or a 9-dimensional dream-construct with walls of psychic energy and empathic locks. I’m getting into pretty vague territory here, and there are plenty of things that aren’t dungeons, so let’s aim for a loose definition. In general, a dungeon tends to involve:

  • Isolation from the outside world, and being largely self-contained (often simply by being indoors or underground, but sometimes through being inside a pocket dimension or separated from the void of space by a foot of plasteel)
  • Subdivision into discrete areas with different natures (great hall, bedroom, plasma lab, torture chamber, bridge, kitchen)
  • Restricted movement of both NPCs and PCs between areas, and limited awareness of events in other areas (generally because of walls, doors and other obstacles)
  • An unknown environment, which PCs have to explore to find information, items, creatures or simply a way out
  • A fairly static environment, with the contents and inhabitants of rooms not changing much without intervention by the PCs
  • Passive rather than proactive in interaction with the PCs, with PCs mostly initiating interactions (choosing where to explore, opening doors, fiddling with equipment, walking into armed guards) rather than responding to ongoing events. PCs maintain overall control of the pace and direction of their interaction (attacking a guard might attract reinforcements from the next room, but probably won’t bring the whole dungeon down on their heads)

I think there’s a meaningful distinction to make between dungeons like this and scenarios that take place in open environments (like cities and jungles), or that are based around events rather than locations (which may handwave locations and travel, or adjust them to keep events going smoothly).

Scenarios, even if they start out on a lonely forest road or in a cosy village, often boil down to investigating dungeons, either to kill something or to get something. Why? Partly I suspect it’s a matter of tradition; dungeons are the essence of the classic D&D scenario, plus it’s rooted in gritty picaresque adventuring stories full of raiding wizards’ towers, fighting through beast-infested caves and so on. John Carter of Mars and Star Wars have their fair share of dungeons too. It’s very natural to design and set up storylines based around a dungeon.

Another thing is that dungeons are a nice, contained environment for adventure. They offer a natural way to have groups of NPCs or enemies in close proximity and fairly static. Certain types excuse having a diverse array of creatures: the gloomy caves have stink mould, rats, three bandits evading the law, a band of goblin aescetics and a giant off-white slime. Others suit organised integrated sets of NPCs that interact, from the prison complex (guards and prisoners) to the palace (servants, guards, royals, messengers, petitioners, visitors...). They limit how far off-track the party can get, since it’s more natural to keep exploring the dungeon than to run off entirely, whereas in more open environments it’s easier to get distracted and leave the plot behind. Of course, a dungeon-crawling party might not do what you expect, but you probably won’t have to invent a dozen NPCs, an entire city and a new storyline on the spur of the moment. The containment also constrains the plot and the adventure, so there are natural endpoints available. They’re a natural for published scenarios because they have a clear starting point and a natural stopping point.

The thing is, dungeons aren’t necessarily a good fit for everyone. Sometimes it’s players aren’t that interested in exploring dungeons, or lose motivation, or the PCs always seem to be avoiding them. A couple of interrelated factors here are the specific players and the in-game party as a whole. I don’t pretend to be an expert here, this is just some ponderings I’ve scribbled down.


In terms of players, dungeons are well suited to what Shannon classified as Action Heroes and Explorers. They’re usually full of challenges for Action Heroes to hurl themselves against, and events are mostly dictated by the players. There’s lots going on in a small area, so the PCs aren’t wandering across the land on quests, hoping some action kicks off soon. They tend to be fairly straightforward, so there’s no worry about sabotaging yourself by starting a fight with someone who turns out to be an important official or local guardian spirit, or having a gaggle of orphans turn up accusingly after you kill some guards. Meanwhile, Explorers have a constant and natural supply of New Stuff to see and interact with, more or less at their own pace.

Tacticians and Communicators don’t get such a good deal. Tacticians may well not consider the game worth the candle, and might prefer alternate strategies that avoid the whole “traipsing through an unknown, monster-ridden hole” business altogether. Communicators may find themselves starved of interaction. While dungeons often have a certain amount of peaceful NPC interaction, it’s generally limited and often in self-contained chunks that don’t have much effect on the rest of the dungeon. Being stuck in a dungeon limits opportunities to call in favours or external resources, and dungeon NPCs tend not to be especially deep or interesting because they’re not designed for socialising or long-term play. Either player, by following their inclinations, may simply skip large chunks of content, and wind up without much to do.


The nature of the adventuring party is another thing to consider. It’s a bit of a nebulous thing, influenced by the classes (or equivalent) of PCs, their personalities and goals, and also by the backstory and aims of the whole party. The relationship and interaction between both PCs and players also plays a part. There are parties who see dungeoneering as an end in itself and perk up at the mention of a sinister cave, parties who freely follow quests or hooks that lead to dungeons, and parties who rein in the horses and look for another strategy.

Broadly speaking, I suspect that a party with a lot of combat or sneaky classes is going to be more dungeon-friendly. People tend to pick classes that suit their playstyle, and if you have three fighters and a couple of rogues, they’re probably looking to break some heads, thwart some traps and get some loot. I mean, they might be a trio of professional duellists and their escapologist friends, or three zealous pacifists who seek spiritual purity through combat drills accompanied by two con artists, but it’s less likely. The party’s skill-set also lends itself to dungeoneering (though the lack of healing or arcane magic could get awkward). A party like that is likely to be proactive in looking for trouble, and fairly quick to resort to combat and direct methods when the trouble starts.

In contrast, a party made largely of artistic bards, pompous wizards, scheming tricksters, finicky clerics or precept-declaiming monks might well not be so suitable. Characters like that are inclined to favour socialising over fighting, to avoid unnecessary conflict and look for ways to overcome the dungeon without getting their hands too dirty. Nothing wrong with those qualities, but they do make dungeoneering less suitable as a playstyle.

Similarly it’ll depend on the party background and backstory. A group of roaming adventurers in a gritty and selfish world might see a boding dungeon as an opportunity to get rich or powerful, and not need much more motivation or excuse. A boisterous group of thrill-seekers and self-appointed heroes might actively seek them out, a way to see new things, learn secrets and test their mettle. On the other hand, a set of royal knights on a quest for the king might see the dungeon as an obstacle between them and their goal, an annoying distraction, or even someone else’s problem entirely.

Any ideas?

So that’s a few thoughts on how dungeons and players and PCs interact, but no practical help. Thanks, me. What to do if dungeons don’t seem to be working out? Well, frankly I don’t know, but some things might work (in fact, I plan to try some things out). Shannon already made some very good points in Lacking Dungeon Endurance.

One obvious but difficult one would be, if your party and players don’t warm to dungeoneering, don’t use dungeons. It does leave you pretty limited though, and takes a huge proportion of pre-written scenarios or plots right out of the equation.

The other thing is to try and mix up. A dungeonesque adventure doesn’t have to be all dungeon all the time. Some lend themselves pretty obviously to variety, like the castle or spaceship I mentioned earlier; a lot of a castle’s inhabitants are not soldiers, so there’s plentiful opportunity to impersonate a guest and gossip, flirt with gardeners, grill librarians for information, and so on. The machinery and mechanisms of a spaceship can present physical danger, intriguing sources of information, or spare parts. The dream-construct might offer you valuable glimpses into the thoughts of the sleeping world, or visions of your childhood, or the opportunity to spend hours crafting beautiful things from the stuff of raw imagination (they won’t last; they never do). The sinister caves might turn out to be a scholar’s paradise, full of rare and fascinating fungi to collect, or the home of reclusive elemental beings who’ll shyly trade with the party.

Another thing is whether player and PC aversion to dungeons is related. It may be that the players of foppish elven aesthetes are perfectly happy to explore dungeons if their fop has a good reason to, in which case it’s down to the DM to think of ways to accomplish that. On the other hand, if the problem is the player just isn’t into dungeon crawling, they need to be motivated in some other way, or the DM could run a mix of game types so everyone gets some of what they like.

This is definitely something I need to think about before I resume the L&L game, but things are on hold for a while so I’ve got time. More research needed, I think.