So I’ve been wondering about ways to make traps work more effectively. Wait, wait, go back a bit. Why do we even have traps?
What’s the point?
There’s a cynical soundbite out there for how people see traps as working in D&D: “We have to have traps to give the rogue something to do. We have to have a rogue to deal with the traps.” Basically it’s a circle of redundancy. If things really end up like that, it’s clearly a problem.
The first part of the adage is clearly cynicism. The second part is a bit true, though. Traps are built into a lot of prewritten adventures, and a party without a rogue is more or less powerless against them. That seems bad. Other obstacles offer multiple ways to deal with them: at least three classes can do arcane casting, healing, scouting and combat, plus scrolls or potions as get-arounds. Traps pretty much just have rogues.
There’s a couple of niche situations where irrelevant traps aren’t a problem. Maybe they’re somewhere that should be safe and the DM uses a trap to warn them all isn’t as it seems. Maybe the party are being careless, and the DM uses a trap to give them a kick (flying boot trap?) and warn them to start scouting before they trigger any alarms or get into major trouble. In both cases, though, there’s a (metagame) reason for the trap.
There might also be situations where rogue busywork isn’t a major problem. If someone wants to play a rogue, but isn’t really into dungeoneering, then having traps or locks that are mostly narrative could give them a rogueish tang without insisting they spend lots of time on that sort of thing. In that case, though, the traps aren’t really busywork, they’re basically scenery. There doesn’t even need to be a rogue in the party for that to work, it can just be a bit of dungeon flavour.
So that’s slightly worrying. What else is there? Well, there’s purposes “traps” serve in RPGs, and then there’s the real-life “traps” that inspire them.
What purposes do “traps” generally serve in RPGs?
- They sap the party’s HP, spell slots or resources – essentially a resource-management tool.
- They alert the party that a situation is dangerous and caution is needed.
- They activate during or before combat to change the balance of the fight by injuring, separating, impeding or disabling party members.
- Some obvious and hard-to-disable traps add an element of thrill and challenge to an otherwise simple activity, like crossing a hallway or retrieving a relic – it’s a puzzle to be solved (with calculated risks) or an obstacle to be overcome.
- Persistent or known traps can act as longer-term obstacles that call for decisions, such as choosing routes (the corridor with the traps or the one past the barracks?) or whether an activity is worth the risk (“how badly do you want that sword?”).
None of those functions are unique to what we call “traps”, but that’s a different matter.
A big dock-off proportion of traps seem to fall into the first category. They act on their own, mostly attached to a corridor, door or treasure chest. They apply what Ben Robbins at Ars Ludi called a “hit point tax for walking down the corridor”, and as he rightly points out, they’re largely non-interactive. You find them or don’t, you disable them or don’t. There’s not usually much in the way of choice. If the DM allows Take 10 or Take 20 (they shouldn’t!) then the problem’s worse, because anywhere players might expect a trap there’s not even a random element – just traps you can find and disable and traps you can’t. And if you’re dropping in traps where they don’t expect them, assuming those expectations are reasonable, when does it become a hit point tax..?
“From the player’s point of view, he tried to do something ordinary, and he took damage for it. He eventually got to do what he wanted to do all along. He just took a little damage and earned some XP along the way. It’s almost entirely a mechanical transaction—no decisions involved. The trap’s only function in the overall adventure is to provide some minor attrition. Worse, the whole table pays a penalty for that minor attrition. Now the PCs start taking 20 on every Search check. They develop elaborate operating procedures for opening a door. The pace of the game slows to a crawl. I ask myself this: Given that you have a finite amount of time at the D&D table with your friends, how much of that time do you want to devote to door-opening?” - Dave Noonan, ‘Let’s Get Small: Adventure Design, Part 1’
I dunno about anyone else, but resource management really doesn’t do it for me as exciting fantasy adventure. I want stuff to be cool and interesting, not numerically sound.
Broadly speaking, these are the sorts of trap-like things you tend to get in real life. Hopefully this will be some help in working out what traps should do in games.
- Alarms to warn of intruders or to deter them. Burglar alarms, nightingale floors, security cameras, even guard dogs.
- Military defences like minefields and moats. These are usually obvious because deterrence is important, and may actually be more effective as deterrents than as weapons. They either deter attackers, slow them down, or divert them where the defenders want them.
- Booby-traps used in war that disrupt enemy manoeuvres. They can damage morale, make enemies avoid an area, or cause confusion before an attack.
- “Traps” used as direct weapons, from parcel-bombs to poisoned food to booby-trapped cars. These include assassination or terrorist attacks, but also scorched-earth techniques. Sawing through the joists of the bridge, poisoning the wine before you leave the castle, or tying a grenade pin to the armoury door, are all good ways to get the last laugh over an attacker. They’re concealed as well as possible, because the whole point is for them to activate.
- Actual traps as defences for things that can’t be guarded effectively. Maybe it’s a sealed tomb where you can’t keep guards; maybe the area’s too large to patrol; maybe you want protection for a thousand years and don’t trust your descendants to provide it. The idea is to deny something to the intruders or to kill them outright. One reason these are mostly in tombs etc. is that they’re dangerous to have around and you don’t want them where your side might accidentally set them off. They’re generally concealed to increase effectiveness.
How should traps work?
Well, in theory, traps are exciting and tense and dramatic! The Evil Penguin threads carefully between the laser beams! The sweating sapper leads through the minefield as the enemy patrol approaches! Indie vaults away from the rolling boulder! The heroes desperately push on the closing walls! They narrowly escape the flurry of darts! They spot the tripwire at the last minute and avoid the deadfall!
Thing there is, most of the fun comes when the traps are set off. A trap that doesn’t trigger is usually pretty dull. Doesn’t mean they need to trigger, but it means you need to make the disabling or avoiding bit fun in and of itself (as with the penguin). They may have a single trigger, but once activated the trap itself, or the environment around it, provides several interactive options for the heroes.
Traps can also be interesting puzzles. Can we work out the rhythm of the swinging blades and skip past? Can we solve the riddle to avoid the trigger-stones? Can we redirect the water-flow to get at the treasure without freeing the demon? Those ones get spotted or aren’t even hidden. They tend to have multiple interactive elements, rather than a single trigger that sets them off.
What isn’t very interesting, though, is a trap that works in a very simple way and has a very simple effect. Hey, you get hit by a dart for 1d6 hp. Well done you. What are we doing now?
Oh hey, I found some different classes of traps. What you might call “Survivors”, “Solvers” and “Stingers” (alliteration is still cool, right?). Cool. I’m sure by the time I’ve finished I’ll have another couple of classification systems all ready to go...