Thursday, 23 August 2012

Killing Me Softly, part one

I've written and re-written this post about ten times now, rearranging and rephrasing all kinds of things, to the point where I can't even evaluate it any more. So I'm just going to shove it out and hope.

I was planning to work on the next part of Trappery, but a recent game of Deathwatch inspired me with another musable thought and I want to strike while the iron’s hot.

Assault Marine by me, based on this picture.

I played a calculating Assault Marine, tooled up with kit to keep tactical options open, including photon flash grenades, which are used to blind enemies. Those sorts of soft attacks have always appealed to me; I like esoteric bits of kit and options that aren’t just “cause damage” but create an advantage in other ways. As things worked out, I readied a flash grenade several times, but never ended up using it. Quite often, it was because I didn’t think they’d be mechanically effective, rather than because I didn’t want to, and that’s what I want to muse about today.

Soft attacks

Most games with combat feature some kind of non-damaging attack. In my case it was flash grenades, but you might find sneezing powder, hallucinogens, paralysing charms, freeze rays, spiderwebs or slow spells. Instead of causing damage, they penalise the targets, making it difficult for them to harm you or defend themselves, and so making the rest of the fight easier. I’ll refer to these sorts of attacks as soft attacks in the rest of this post, and I’ll refer to stunning, blinding and other such non-damage penalties as status effects. In contrast, hard attacks are those that deal actual damage. Also, I’ll use level to indicate any kind of progressive scale of power from ‘puny inexperienced peasant’ to ‘godlike veteran adventurer’, and the corresponding NPCs and monsters.

Sweeping generalisations ahoy!

Obviously, there’s massive differences between games and I can only make very broad statements based on the arbitrary subset of games I’m thinking about. Some don’t have soft attacks, some may not play out in the way I’m discussing here. They’re not really germane right now.

Soft attacks are a useful and effective addition to simple hack-and-slash combat. They can lock down dangerous targets, disrupt enemy tactics, or help eliminate key threats much faster than brute force alone would allow. In practice, they tend to be either highly effective or completely ineffective, without much middle ground. That’s because soft attacks are mostly a binary option: either they affect the target fully, or they have no effect at all. Soft attacks are quite swingy to use compared with the variable-but-reliable damage inflicted by hard attacks. One is the flashy, dashing and photogenic cavalier; the other is a solid, unassuming middle-aged guard who doesn’t even get a mention in the credits.

From Complete Adventurer and Players' Handbook 3.5 art galleries (C) Wizards of the Coast.

This is mostly down to differences in the mechanics for the two attack types, which I’ll get round to looking at later on. One feature you tend to find is that the more powerful an enemy is, the swingier soft attacks are. This mostly comes down to a combination of the way resilience is modelled, the invariant nature of status effects, and the way powerful enemies are used in games. Against very powerful enemies, soft attacks can become mechanically useless, or deeply suboptimal, but this mechanical reality doesn’t always match up to what logic or drama would suggest. Sometimes the cause is flat-out immunity, and sometimes it’s just very high resilience to soft attacks.

Immunities in general can be interesting and characterful. Eyeless cave-drakes can’t be blinded, robots don’t need to breathe, and water elementals can flow through entangling vines. These make narrative sense, shake up tactics a bit and avoid things getting too predictable. In other cases, immunities seem arbitrary, and largely designed to stop key battles falling flat through skilled or lucky use of soft attacks. ‘Bosses’ in many games (especially computer games) are immune to stunning, sleep, paralysis, nausea, and a whole list of other effects, either through special traits, equipment or magic, and this often seems designed to make the fight pan out as the designers intended.

While immunity to soft attacks is usually deliberate, near-immunity can be a side-effect of creating powerful opponents, an artefact of the way the game models creatures. Resistance to soft attacks often scales with the level of the creature, while above-average statistics also bump up resistance. In Pathfinder, for example, Will saves are based on the creature’s level and its Wisdom statistic; since powerful monsters tend to have high levels and high stats, their Will saves tend to be higher than those of weaker monsters, even when both are intended to challenge the same adventurers. This is part of being ‘more powerful’, in the same way that hit points tend to increase. Resistances based on physical toughness are usually the most strongly affected, since lone powerful opponents tend to be extremely tough (so they last long enough in a fight) even if their other scores are not particularly high.

Monster Power!

It might be useful to clarify what I’m talking about here. Most games (excepting things like Call of Cthulhu) have levels of monster power that correspond roughly to the level of the PCs, so that it’s easy to work out what monsters are suitable opponents at any stage of the PCs’ careers. However, within that band of ‘level-appropriate opponents’ there’s a range of monsters of varying power. Generally speaking, this means there are weak monsters who appear in hordes, middling monsters who appear in groups about equal to the PCs, and powerful monsters who appear individually. Though the overall difficulty of the fight is about the same, one powerful monster is a much more dangerous opponent than one weak monster. This power typically comes from being relatively high-level, but may just be down to higher stats or better equipment. Often it’s a mixture of these three.


As I see it, powerful enemies tend to be very resistant to soft attacks, and this can make the game less convincing or satisfying. More specifically, powerful enemies tend to be disproportionately resistant to soft attacks, if not completely immune. This is sometimes a deliberate design decision to stop a game falling flat when the powerful central villain of the piece fails a saving throw and is frozen solid before it gets a single shot off. At other times, it’s just a consequence of the way the system models resilience.

Case Study: Battling Broodlords

Let’s returning to our Deathwatch game for a minute. Towards the end of the game, we faced off against a genestealer broodlord and its kin. I had a flash grenade ready to throw as soon as any enemies appeared, but by the time it burst out of cover, everything else had been mown down in a hail of bullets and flame, leaving only the broodlord. Quick calculation time. Assuming a successful hit, I’d have to overcome the broodlord’s Toughness, which would be high. Even worse, while I didn’t know the Deathwatch system at all, general experience suggested such a key enemy might be entirely immune to the attack. I also vaguely remember from older editions of tabletop 40K that Tyranids were highly resistant to many soft attacks. So realistically, there was maybe a 10% chance of a successful hit actually affecting the Broodlord and hampering it for a short time. Using a grenade, I’d also only be able to make a single attack.

Alternatively, I could just charge it; I’d get two or three chainsword attacks at 60%, so at least one should hit and inflict some damage even through its armour. There wasn’t really much of a choice. I’d have to spend five rounds grenading the broodlord to have even odds of blinding it, and there’s a real chance it might be unblindable anyway. In five rounds of conventional attacks, I could expect to land at least five hits and inflict maybe 30 wounds, helping my battle-brothers to finish it off faster and with less injury to ourselves. There was really no comparison.

It might just be me, but this is not how I imagine special attacks working. Heroes don’t stand around methodically lobbing grenade after grenade at the beast ripping through their comrades, hoping to get lucky and blind it; they hurl one to get a quick advantage as they charge in, sending it reeling long enough for someone to land a crucial blow.

Because powerful enemies are so difficult to affect with soft attacks, you end up not even trying, because you expect conventional attacks to be more reliable and often more effective. Many soft attacks provide a relatively small benefit to the attacker, such as a small penalty on the target’s dice rolls. This is a worthwhile tradeoff against a couple of hard attacks, but rarely more. Trying out an unreliable tactic against ordinary opponents is one thing, because you’re not taking too much risk; against something very powerful, you want to aim for maximum efficiency because every round they fight is a serious threat, so unless the unreliable tactic will be devastating if it succeeds, it’s not worth the trade-off. It’s particularly not worth trying any tactic that is both unreliable and less effective than hitting things with your sword.

The logical outcome here is that against a broodlord, you don’t bother with realistic use of soft attacks. You either rely on hard attacks, or you spam very powerful soft attacks; although the chances to succeed are slim, if you can beat that 10% chance to paralyse it, the effect will be devastating.

For one thing, this is a bit boring. For another, it's slightly disheartening if you've envisioned your character as a tactical or tricksy sort, and you're either ineffective in major fights, or have to resort to fighting on someone else’s terms. For a third, it goes against the grain of realism, because fights against dangerous opponents are exactly the ones where you should be turning to tactical combat and indirect options to gain every possible advantage. You might go toe-to-toe with a wolf, but if you’re hunting rogue elephants nobody says “no point trying tranquilisers or poison on that tough old brute... I’ll just have to face it mano a mano, pass me a knife”.

Analysing the problem

So as I see it, the problem is that it’s mechanically difficult, and often suboptimal, to use soft attacks against relatively powerful creatures; and that this reduces tactical options and makes the game less interesting. I’m interested in seeing whether this is true, why, and (if so) whether anything could be done to redress the balance, without allowing soft attacks to become too powerful: as I’ll explain later, this is a real danger.

The Sword and the Stun: hard and soft attacks

In many cases, there are significant differences between the ways soft and hard attacks work, which affect the way they’re used. I think the main ones are the mechanics for making the attack, the way the effects of an attack are modelled, the way progression is modelled, and the way resilience is modelled. I’ll be generalising hugely from now on, and your pet system may work differently; for example, not all games involve variable damage from attacks.

Dice (typical role playing game dice)


Both hard and soft attacks usually call for an attack roll to see if the attack is on target, and some systems allow the defender to try and dodge or parry a successful hit. At this point, the mechanics diverge.

Hard attacks tend to go like this:

  1. attack roll
  2. (optional) dodge or parry roll
  3. roll for damage (damage roll)
  4. if the damage inflicted exceeds any damage mitigation*, the defender suffers the difference as damage

*things like Deathwatch Armour or Dungeons and Dragons Damage Reduction or Energy Resistance.

Soft attacks often go like this:

  1. attack roll
  2. (optional) dodge or parry roll
  3. roll to see if the attack is effective (resistance roll)
  4. if the attacker won, the defender suffers a fixed penalty

Unsurprisingly, these different systems produce different results. I’ve knocked out a diagram below, with the width of columns broadly corresponding to probability.

Fifty percent extra unlikely

In the hard attack, there are two pass/fail rolls (attack and dodge) that can negate the attack. The third roll establishes the effect of the attack, which varies from low damage to high damage. In the soft attack, there are three pass/fail rolls (attack, dodge, and resistance) that can negate the attack. The effect of the attack does not vary: it’s a fixed status effect (though see “Tangent: duration rolls” below).

If hard and soft attacks use the same attack and dodge rolls, which is typical, the extra pass/fail roll for resistance means that soft attacks are statistically more likely to be negated. Assuming a simple system and two identical opponents, each of the rolls may be 50%, which means a hard attack has a 25% chance of inflicting a variable amount of harm, while a soft attack has a 12.5% chance of inflicting a fixed penalty. In reality things are rarely so simple, but you get the idea.

This statistical disparity isn’t necessarily a problem. It depends on the relative effectiveness of hard and soft attacks, and the interaction between this and other factors.

Effects: there is no ‘try’ in ‘soft’

While both attacks involve the same number of rolls, the hard attack resolves effectiveness through a variable damage roll. In contrast, the soft attack resolves it through a binary resistance roll. A soft attack either works or it doesn’t, whereas a hard attack can be more or less damaging to the target. The lasrifle inflicts between 1 and 10 points of damage to the target, while the taser stuns it for two rounds if it fails its resilience roll.

Tangent: duration rolls

In reality, soft attacks quite often add a variable dimension by having a roll for (typically) the duration of an effect. The strength of the effect doesn’t vary, though. In these cases, the soft attacks require more rolls than a hard one, and are still more likely to fail outright, as well as allowing the possibility of a low duration roll.

This point attracts my attention most, because it runs contrary to reality. Things like being dazed, blinded, tranquilised or weighed down don’t have an arbitrary threshold. A punch that sends most people reeling may only make a boxer a little dizzy, and give a world champion momentary pause. A tranquiliser that knocks out a dog will leave a horse weak and lethargic, even if it doesn’t bother an elephant. Thick underbrush is a major obstacle to a toddler, a tiring inconvenience to you, and irrelevant to a gorilla. If I’m going to look at changing anything, this right here seems like a good place to start.

Progression: Bigger, better, faster, stronger

Where games include progression, it usually involves a system for increasing the effectiveness of attacks.

Attack rolls tend to scale with your level, but so do dodge rolls (or Armour Class, or whatever else determines the difficulty of landing a blow). Broadly speaking, hitting enemies of your own level is usually about the same difficulty, regardless of the actual level involved. This progression affects soft and hard attacks equally, and so is mostly irrelevant here.

Damage from hard attacks also tends to scale: low-level attacks do less damage than high-level ones. This usually balances with the hit points of level-appropriate enemies, which also scale, so it takes about the same number of combat rounds to kill an opponent regardless of your level. Its main significance is that any given hard attack becomes less effective as the level of the enemy increases, because the damage inflicted is a smaller proportion of their total. However, a successful hit still generally inflicts some damage and contributes to your victory. Thus, the value of a successful hit depends on the relative level of attacker and defender. Stabbing a rat with a dagger is a lot more effective than stabbing a blue whale, but even a whale will drop eventually.

In contrast, the effect of soft attacks is rarely level-dependent (though duration may be influenced by level). Instead, the attacker’s and defender’s levels are reflected in the resistance roll, with a low-level attacker being less likely to win. This usually balances with the resilience of level-appropriate enemies, so the threshold for a resistance roll against an appropriate opponent is about the same regardless of your level. Its main significance is that any given soft attack becomes less effective as the level of the enemy increases, because it will probably be negated by the resistance roll. However, an attack that does overcome resistance is exactly as effective against all enemies, regardless of level. Asleep is asleep, frozen is frozen, blind is blind, be you goblin or titan.

This is very important, because it means that the effectiveness of soft attacks doesn’t depend on the level of the attack. All that matters is winning the resistance roll.

Tangent: high-level enemies

In practice, high-level enemies in some systems have abilities that mitigate the effect of soft attacks, most notably dispel-type powers that help them to remove status effects, which are not generally available to low-level enemies. They may have special senses that limit the effect of blindness, or teleporting powers that make having your shoes tied together less of a problem. So it’s not necessarily “exactly as effective”, but it’s close. High-level enemies may also have healing abilities that mitigate the effects of hard attacks, so hey.

Resilience: Was that supposed to hurt?

Because hard attacks affects hit points while soft attacks inflict penalties, and also because one is variable and the other is binary, they have different ways of accounting for the toughness of the target. Essentially, hard resilience is modelled by reducing the relative effectiveness of a successful attack. In contrast, soft resilience is modelled by reducing the chance of an attack succeeding at all.

Creatures that are entirely immune to hit point damage are vanishingly rare, while effects that mitigate or heal damage are fairly common. Creatures that are immune to specific or all soft attacks are fairly common, while effects that mitigate status effects without entirely negating them are rare.

Again, systems vary. Traveller, Deathwatch and D&D all have damage-reducing defences that can reduce damage down to zero. What this tends to mean is that relatively low-level attacks are ineffective, level-appropriate attacks almost always inflict some damage, and high-level attacks always inflict some damage. It renders creatures immune to the least powerful attacks, while otherwise acting more or less like extra hit points. This does not, in my view, significantly alter the balance between soft and hard attacks.

So what?

Taken together, these things mean that soft and normal attacks work in significantly different ways.

  • A hard attack causes a variable amount of damage. Unusually resilient enemies take relatively less damage. The damage is less effective against higher-level enemies. It is more effective against several weak enemies than one strong enemy, even if their total hit points are equal, because killing enemies prevents them from attacking.
  • A soft attack either works or it doesn’t, and against unusually resilient opponents it is less likely to work. The status effects it imposes affect enemies of any level about equally. It is more effective against one strong enemy than several weak ones, even if their total hit points are equal, because a higher proportion of the enemies are penalised.

Why are those designers so mean to soft attacks?

At this point, you may be thinking: “But Shimmin, that’s not true. Low-level soft attacks aren’t effective against high-level creatures. You already discussed that!” Absolutely. Designers understandably limit the power of soft attacks to deal with these problems. You can’t just stun whatever you like; you have to see if it’s tough enough to resist you, typically with a resistance roll. If the defender wins, then it shrugs the attack off completely. It’s not stunned, just a little disoriented. It’s not asleep, just drowsy. It’s not blind, its eyes are just watering a bit.

Very occasionally, soft attacks impose a lesser version of the status effect if the resistance roll is successful; being dazed instead of stunned in Pathfinder, for example. This seems like a promising line of investigation.

Soft attacks complicate games in various ways, which I suspect is one of the reasons that immunities appear, and also why it’s okay if soft attacks are less likely to succeed. Here are some of them.

  • Soft attacks are particularly dangerous to powerful enemies, as they tend to work alone or in smaller groups. A lone giant that’s frozen in place can quickly be hacked to death, tied up, or showered with other soft attacks until it’s out of the fight for good. In contrast, freezing one of fifty goblins hasn’t helped much.
  • Soft attacks also make power-scaling awkward. Typically, you start off with rusty spoons fighting diseased goblins, and work your way up the hero ladder until you’re battling greater demons with a flaming omniversal railgun that fires angels’ tears and was carved from the fang of the Dragon Queen. As you progress, your early weapons become less and less effective against the enemies you’re facing; there’s no point using that rusty spoon that causes 1d2 damage any more, because it’ll take you a hundred rounds and four real-life hours to kill one opponent. However, as I said above, an attack that stuns one opponent for one round is just as useful against one greater demon as it is against one kobold. If there was no resistance roll, this would allow low-level soft attacks to wreak havoc on high-level enemies, which disrupts the game balance system. Low-level characters who could never defeat a demon by main strength are able to take it down through soft attacks. The balance of the game becomes skewed towards soft attacks.
  • In any game with major physical differences between opponents, realism is also affected: thick-skinned Greater Xrgax Beasts are much more resistant to laser fire and bullets than Lesser Xrgax Pups, but just as easy to knock out with an uppercut..?
  • Low-level attacks are typically more readily available or cheaper to buy than high-level ones. This works for hit-point weapons, whose damage scales readily with level, but not for soft weapons. Without scaling effectiveness, there’d be no reason to buy an expensive 100th-level stun grenade instead of a hundred cheap 1st-level ones. The balance becomes skewed in favour of buying a hundred stun grenades instead of a railgun.

What to do about it?

As I see it, the main problem is that most systems treat status effects as binary. You’re either blind, or you’re not. This makes the difference between “effective” and “ineffective” much greater than for a weapon that rolls low or high damage. A poor sword attack against a powerful enemy might only inflict 1 point of damage, but that's still chipping away at them. In contrast, a poor stun attack achieves nothing, while a good one grants a substantial advantage.

The resistance roll allows creatures to soak up soft damage, just as hit points allow them to soak up hard damage. The difference is that hit points are slowly whittled away by even the puniest attack, while soft attacks have no cumulative effect. It takes twenty hits to whittle down the ogre’s health and force it to surrender, and those hits build on each other in a predictable way. Any individual sleeping charm has a 5% chance of dropping it immediately, and it’s entirely random whether that’s the first, the twentieth or the one-thousandth charm you use.

What I’m wondering is if you could usefully model status effects as a range, which would allow for more flexibility in their impact on targets, making them less of an all-or-nothing proposition. I’d like to make soft attacks, not better overall, but easier to use in a fun and useful way. This might well require a system built around that aim, rather than a superficial tweak. In a future post, I’ll try and see what possibilities there are, and whether it would really be feasible at all.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Trappery, part four

So far in this series, I’ve pondered:

  • What traps are (and come up with “it depends”)
  • How traps tend to work in games (they go off, or don’t; and cause damage, or don’t)
  • Why traps are unsatisfactory (mechanically dull, narratively dull, don’t make sense)
  • What the point is of having traps in real life (alarm, deter invasion, damage morale, covert attack, protect the unguardable)
  • How I’d like traps to affect my game (exciting narrow escapes, interesting problem-solving)
  • Useful functions that traps could perform in RPGs (creating a sense of danger, testing PC competence, encouraging caution, validating playstyles, creating decision points, triggering encounters, complicating encounters, challenging player ingenuity)
  • Possible stages of interaction with a trap (spot, identify, neutralise, survive, aftermath)

Last time I suggested taking a look at trap design, both in reality and in game-mechanical terms. That seems like a good way to take things. Let’s start with real trap design. I’m going to be assuming a roughly real-life setting, but these ideas should be mostly applicable to fantastical settings, and ‘technology’ and ‘magic’ are largely interchangeable.

by Wizards of the Coast

Aspects of Trap Design


A good starting point is the lethality of traps. In most societies, premeditated killing is illegal even if it’s allowed in immediate self defence, so most legal traps cannot be lethal. Ordinary citizens usually have relatively safe lives, so are reluctant to endanger themselves by having security systems that could kill or maim them. There are also concerns about injury to unexpected callers, like paramedics or firefighters.

The military are a notable exception, as they tend to take a harder line on lethal force, acceptable risks and fatal accidents. If someone breaks the rules or makes a silly mistake, and gets themselves killed, that’s unfortunate but not catastrophic. The magnitude of the threats they face outweighs concerns of absolute safety and nonviolence. Xenophobic societies that despise outsiders may also not care about them getting hurt unnecessarily, though these generally have more concern for their own members than the average military.

The other main exception is anyone operating outside the law, be it hardened criminals, powerful individuals, repressive security forces, or wilderness dwellers. These are not worried about legal consequences. Again, the safer the trapper’s own lifestyle, the less likely they are to risk using lethal traps in case of accidents, though leaders may order minions to place traps where they themselves aren’t at risk.

In short, if you’re a law-abiding citizen or company in a peaceful society, your traps will usually be non-lethal, and often non-violent. The more violent your ordinary lifestyle is, the more violent your traps are likely to be. Megacorporations in dystopian futures may set nerve gas traps with impunity, knowing that they make the law, just as gun-toting pioneers on frontier planets lay mantraps and dig spiked pits. Finally, the lethality of traps is weighed up against the magnitude of threats they are defending against, or at least believed to defend against.


A second issue is the impact of traps on the trapper’s own activities. A trap should not create more problems than it solves. Military bases, palaces or nuclear plants will accept a lot of inconvenience because of the risk posed by security breaches, so you’re iris-scanned at every door, there’s tight monitoring of email and net access, and queuing through scanners and random searches on the way in and out . Companies with data or equipment to protect demand ID swipe-in, and the server room locks down if you mistype the password. Spies and organised criminals may take elaborate precautions with passwords, rendezvous times, and checking for weapons or bugs. Shops trap expensive goods with dye sprays. Jewellers’ shops are at considerable risk for their size, so they have reinforced shutters, cameras, detectors, locked cases and .

For ordinary citizens or small businesses, the amount of activating, deactivating, locking, recharging, feeding and hazard-avoiding they can be bothered with depends on how seriously they are worried about security. Most of us are lazy and pragmatic, and locking up plus setting a burglar alarm is the most we want to faff with. That’s enough to deter opportunists, and any really professional burglars can probably evade any security measures we could afford. Setting pit traps or poisoning doorknobs requires time and effort, and we have to remember about them when we come back in, warn any visitors not to rush in after us, get the pit cover from the cupboard and replace it, painstakingly wipe off the poison and dispose of the cloth, and add ‘contact poison’ to the shopping list for tomorrow because we’re running low. That stuff ain’t cheap, either. By time we’re finished, our date is soaked to the skin from waiting outside in the rain, and the ice-cream has melted. Then we remember we forgot to shut the hall door, and the neighbour’s cat we’ve been looking after has a cute trick of opening doorknobs. I mean, had.

Traps are even more inconvenient once they trigger: alarms waking neighbours, people getting trapped in pits or blasted with tear gas, and potentially both property damage and dead bodies to account for, not to mention clearing up afterwards and filling in the inevitable forms. People won’t tolerate that much inconvenience unless it saves them from greater problems. Broadly speaking, then, people in low-risk situations tend to have high-threshold triggers to avoid annoying false alarms. In contrast, people with serious concerns about security will have sensitive triggers; they’re willing to ensure the hassle of false positives for the sake of never missing a real intrusion. The motion detector in the armoury is a lot jumpier than the one in your living room.

In summary, the sensitivity of triggers and the difficulty of avoiding them tends to correspond roughly to the risk of intrusion and the amount of harm intrusion could cause.


The problem with most forms of security, including traps, is the people. The ideal form of security, as certain emperors surmised, involves the guarded object being hidden in an impregnable chamber somewhere utterly inaccessible, guarded with an array of utterly impassable traps; and then to eliminate not only the genius who designed the chamber, the genius who designed the traps, the workers who built both and everyone who knows the location of the object, but also every single person who knows it even exists and every piece of evidence that mentions it.

from Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately (unless you’re a genius engineer), this is generally not feasible. Most of the things that need guarding are only valuable because they’re useful, which means people need access to them. That’s true for powerful tomes, crowns, financial data, shop stock, munitions, money, homes, commercial secrets and personal possessions. There are three main issues here:

  1. how public the protected area is;
  2. the people who need to safely pass the trap;
  3. the people who need to activate, deactivate, reset and maintain the trap

In a public area, it’s hard to justify using dangerous traps or those that trigger indiscriminately, as there’s a good chance of false positives, collateral damage and other inconveniences. Even despots won’t put fire traps in the city square; they keep them behind walls, guards or other obstacles that create a secure area. Similarly, you don’t want the ever-popular laser sensors installed outside the loos where legitimate employees will be setting them off constantly; you put them in the vault.

If a lot of people need access past the trap, you need an easy and reliable method to do so. This might involve ID readers, keys, passwords or knowing where the pressure plate is. Information is harder to lose, leave behind or steal than keys, but easier to pass on without anyone knowing and possible to forget; you’re more likely to mistype a password or step on the wrong flagstone than your ID is to malfunction. A large number of people means more chance of mistakes (and therefore false alarms), particularly if the pool of people changes a lot, so very deadly traps become problematic. A large and changing pool also carries a greater risk of security breaches, and can make some pass methods expensive. In general, information-based passes are more suitable for small groups of trusted individuals who won’t gossip, while larger groups call for personalised passes like ID checks or even biometrics that check if the visitor is who they’re claiming to be. Finally, the access method needs to be suitable for its users: some types will remember passwords and treat ID with great care; others will forget everything, gossip in the pub and lose their keys every weekend.

Most of the above applies to trap supervisors as well, but they have additional power and will know more about how it works, while visitors may just know it exists.

In short, a trap in an area exposed to innocent bystanders is likely to be less dangerous and more difficult to trigger. The more people who bypass the trap and the greater their turnover, the more forgiving the trap should be, to allow for mistakes. Information passes work well for small trusted groups, but larger groups call for more personalised methods.


At some point, traps will call for your attention, for one of two reasons. The first is simple maintenance: traps need repairing, oiling, testing and so on, whether they’ve been triggered or not. The second is that once a trap’s been triggered, it will generally need resetting, reloading, refuelling or otherwise putting back in functioning condition. You may also need to repair damage caused by the trap, conceal the trap again, clean up any bodies, or extract anyone captured alive. If the traps don’t immediately kill intruders, then unless you respond to check out the area there’s a real chance they’ll manage to escape, or even find a way past and nick your stuff. How easy any of this is depends on the environment of the trap, and its location. A trap buried five miles underground in a dark, gas-filled tomb littered with other deadly traps is a trickier proposition than your burglar alarm. A pit trap or ensnaring charm is useful if you inspect the room regularly, but otherwise you may just find a few dangling ropes, the hacked-up remains of some vines, and a big empty space in your treasury. Similarly, an alarm is no use if there’s nobody to hear it.

In short, the circumstances of the trap will affect what traps are useful. If the area remains accessible to trappers, then non-lethal traps, deterrents, and high- maintenance traps are viable options. If it’s dangerous, remote or sealed off, then clever intruders will have plenty of time to find ways around obvious traps, and to escape from non-lethal traps they do set off; there’s also a good chance that traps will stop working over time. As a result, these situations are better suited to either impassable defences, or concealed traps that are instantly fatal. They also call for very reliable traps, since there’s nobody to notice breakdowns, which either means simple traps that can’t easily malfunction, or very robust and probably expensive technology.

What's Your Trap?

If you’re designing a trap, there’s a few questions you should ask yourself based on the points above:

  • What’s the main objective of the trap?
  • Who or what are the targets of the trap?
  • Who uses the area, and who has authority to bypass or deactivate the trap?
  • How serious is the threat you’re guarding against?
  • How dangerous is your everyday life?
  • Are you military, official, commercial, criminal or a private citizen?
  • What sort of budget and resources are available?
  • How easily can you maintain or inspect the trap?

That seems like plenty to be going on with for now, and this is a long post now, so I’ll leave things there until next time. Next time on Trappery (unless I change my mind): deriving practical details of traps from these basic points.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Trappery, part three

Okay, so I’ve thought about:

  • What traps are (and come up with “it depends”)
  • How traps tend to work in games (they go off, or don’t; and cause damage, or don’t)
  • Why traps are unsatisfactory (mechanically dull, narratively dull, don’t make sense)
  • What the point is of having traps in RPGs (increase caution, deplete resources, change balance of fights, add challenge to exploration, create decision points)
  • What the point is of having traps in real life (alarm, deter invasion, damage morale, covert attack, protect the unguardable)
  • How I’d like traps to affect my game (exciting narrow escapes, interesting problem-solving)

At this point I’m not entirely sure where to go next. How about thinking of constructive ways to use traps? Obviously some of this will be rehashing previous points.

Traps! What are they good for?

  • Traps can be a warning that a place is dangerous when the party may not be expecting it. It doesn’t matter whether they’re triggered or not. Spotting and avoiding the trap will raise red flags just as effectively as someone taking damage. Some DMs like to exaggerate the deadliness of avoided traps to emphasise the danger.
  • Traps can be risks to be overcome with caution, a test of the PCs’ skills. These traps are really a kind of ambush hazard, in the same way as rotting floorboards, green slime, thin ice, or basking snakes. They pose a risk by being unnoticed, but perceptiveness and caution leaves them mostly harmless. The penalty for failure might be HP damage, a temporary inconvenience like imprisonment, or the loss of access to a room as the ceiling crashes down. The trap might alert monsters up ahead and making their next battle that much harder. Traps like this aren’t qualitatively different from other skill checks like sneaking, climbing or lying.
  • Traps can be a stick to push players into cautious play by punishing them for careless or over-confident approaches. Failing to comply by searching for traps, going slowly and testing everything results in penalties. The boundaries of “careless” and “over-confident” are up for debate, though. At what point does it just become a case of the DM fencing them in? I think for this to make sense, there’s got to be a good reason why caution is called for, not just a DM preference.
  • Somewhat counter-intuitively, for players who enjoy cautious play and having a Standard Operating Procedure for opening doors or crossing hallways, traps can be a kind of reward, validating their choices and caution. If you enjoy that playstyle, then spending five minutes examining the area around a door and finding two traps gives a sense of achievement, whereas if you consistently find nothing it may give you a feeling that you’re ‘playing it wrong’ or simply that the DM isn’t interested in cooperating. Of course, that doesn’t mean every door should be trapped, just that traps should play a part in the game.
  • Traps can create decision points, where players weigh up risks and benefits. Do they search the old tomb cautiously, or stomp right in? Being gung-ho will cost them in HP, penalties or lost opportunities, but is faster both in-game and out-of-game. Here you need another element to create the decision, usually time pressure.
  • Traps can be a way of triggering encounters. These include summoning traps, or traps that drop players into snake pits or whatever, as well as simple alarms. It’s sometimes possible to avoid these, or turn them into a cakewalk, just like any other encounter.
  • Traps can be extra factors in an encounter, like any other hazard. For the most part these are effectively hazards that happen to be hidden, but they can also create time limits (defeat the skeletons in time to escape the compactor room!) or create a new trade-off (I can charge those skeletons but I might trigger the dart traps, or I can wait for the rogue to disable them and risk another hail of arrows).
  • Traps can be challenges all by themselves, which require tactical thought and application of skills to overcome. Anything from simply getting past an open pit safely, to escaping a rolling boulder or crossing a rune-covered hall without triggering any summoning spells.

Good to think about, though I’m not sure it leads anywhere particular. I think this will be more useful in terms of DM planning: working out what you want a trap to do will help establish the kind of trap you need.

From here, it seems like there are three ways to take things. We can look at the different stages of interaction with a trap, and how we could model those mechanically. We can look at it from the perspective of creating traps, and using design features of a trap to work out the interactive aspects. We could also take a player-centred approach of deciding how we want traps to play out, and then creating a system around it. I might try all three.

Dealing with traps

I’d like to think there’s no particular reason why dealing with even simple traps can’t be fun and challenging opportunities. Just like a simple combat or a basic social encounter can be a fun part of a game. So what does a trap actually involve? I think there are five main stages, though not all will come in on any particular occasion.

  1. Spot the danger – pressure-pad, dart holes, bloodstains, tripwires, runes, auras...
  2. Identify the danger – falling, being crushed, poison, a dropping portcullis, a collapsing bridge, attracting enemies...
  3. Neutralise or avoid the danger – find safe routes, block outlets, brace structures, disable mechanisms, dispel magic, bypass triggers
  4. Survive the danger – avoid attacks, break restraints, escape danger zones, destroy hazards, defeat creatures
  5. Aftermath – rescue allies, treat injuries, retrieve items or loot, seek resting places, plan the next move

Let’s think about how these might be used in Pathfinder, since that’s my current dungeon game.

Stage 1: Spotting danger

Often, trap detection is left to rogues or equivalent trapfinders. Realistically, though, that doesn’t make much sense. Any character that spends a lot of time in trap-infested areas should learn to recognise warning signs. I also feel that it shouldn’t have to be an active skill, though obviously that will tend to increase your chances. The world is full of stories where heroes spot the tripwire just in time, or sense the magical aura, or otherwise avoid danger through spider-senses. Painstakingly searching an area will make you much more likely to spot and avoid traps, but I feel like it shouldn’t be obligatory.

Traps have a Perception DC of about 20. At first level, an average character is going to have about a +5, with clerics (+7) actually much more observant than rogues (+4) by dint of their Wisdom (in Pathfinder, anyone can detect traps to some extent, but it’s not true in all systems). Over time the 1/2 level bonus that rogues get will change that, unless the cleric’s determined to stay sharp.

Hmm, when...? Well, at 10th level a spotty cleric will probably have 10 ranks, the +3 class skill bonus, and a +5 from Wisdom for 18 total. A rogue will have 10 ranks, +3 class skill, and +5 from half level. That’s going to be about the pivot point, I think.

Anyway! Tangent aside, that means characters have about a 1-in-4 chance of spotting a trap if they’re getting a roll. However, we’re planning to separate some of this trap-spotting into the Identification stage, which suggests the DC should be easier. I’d also say that trap DC should be planned according to the role of the trap; anything that’s more fun to avoid than to trigger should be easy to spot. For some traps, it’s not a matter of seeing anything, but realising its significance – in which case no Perception roll is required. Everyone sees the dragon statue, but who realises that it’s perfectly positioned to breathe on anyone touching the altar? Who realises the harmless light and music evocations in the gallery would be perfect arcane camouflage for a fire trap?

Stage 2: Identifying danger

Scouting is a matter either of noticing something, which is Perception or Spot or whatever you want to call it, and of realising its significance. For most dangers, we use a specialist skill like Survival, or else a Knowledge skill. It would seem like this is the way to handle traps. Natural and underground “hazards” already use KNature and KDungeoneering respectively. You could simply extend this to include KEngineering for architectural traps, and KArcana for magical traps (as it already identifies glyphs of warding and so on). In some cases, a trap is blatant enough that you don’t need any special knowledge to identify it; once you spot the heavily damaged bit of floor, and glance up to see the pointy metal spikes covered in reddish-brown stains on the ceiling overhead, not much deduction is called for.

Stage 3: Avoidance or neutralisation

Assuming the party realise there’s a trap and work out what it’s doing, they can attempt to disable it or bypass it – or even take control of it. This is where it really starts to depend on the nature of the trap and its triggers. For something like a spiked pit, it’s a matter of finding a way to get across safely. For a corridor full of pressure-plate dart traps, they might try to calculate a safe route, or painstakingly disable the plates, or hide behind a wardrobe and drag it across with them. For a magical summoning trap that detects intruders without the right enchanted token, they might be able to rig up fake tokens, suppress the spell, build a cage to trap the summons somewhere harmless, or even hack the ward entirely and turn it against its owners... The party might also change routes to avoid a trap entirely, decide not to interefere with a trapped object, and so on.

Ignoring the Pathfinder bit for a moment, this stage emphasises the preventative aspect of traps and can gently direct the party’s actions. For example, in a modern-day office most of the computers will be password-locked, and failed logins may be logged and attract suspicion. Rather than trying computers at random, better to either search for the one with the password stuck to the screen, or break into a locked office where they’ve left a computer unsecured. If you’re trying to sneak around a military complex, maybe it’s easier to ignore the areas with complex laser alarms (or fire traps) and stick to more accessible bits. It can help to steer players towards the most interesting bits of an area, or the simplest solutions to a problem.

Mechanically, some of these tactics might call for skill checks, such as trying to weave through laser sensors, calculate the safe stones in a corridor, or suppress warding spells. Others might just work if the players think of them, like using mage hand to flick a switch, or laying a door over a pit as a crude bridge. Some might work automatically, but have side effects – smashing a load of mechanisms will take time and might attract attention, but in the end you’ll disable the trap.

Stage 4: Survival

If we reach this point, something has gone wrong for the party. Either they failed to detect it, failed to avoid it, decided it was better than the alternative, or it was a plot-trap that wasn’t really in the party’s power to avoid. This might be a trap that’s triggered by an NPC, a MacGuffin-ward that they have to evade on their flight from the ancient temple, or the kind that doesn’t have a trigger and is more of an environmental hazard.

This is likely to be the most straightforward part, with skill checks, spells or combat resolving the situation. There’s so many factors here I can’t really say much. It might be a simple matter of escaping a dangerous area, or there might be blocks to overcome or enemies to defeat. Something might be attacking fleeing PCs, or they might be rolling to overcome dangers.

Stage 5: Aftermath

Once the party has survived the immediate effects of the trap, they need to take stock of the situation. If there was any point to the trap, things have changed since it triggered. There may be party members trapped in pits, entangled by plants, teleported away, or even captured by enemies, who need rescuing. Some might be poisoned, paralysed or badly injured and need healing. They might have lost equipment, or want to loot bodies, and maybe retrieve whatever treasure lured them there in the first place. The triggering of a trap might have alerted guards, either as part of the trap or because a lot of noise ensued, so the party have something else to worry about as they decide how to proceed. Some traps cut off routes, so they might need to find a different way to proceed, or an alternative way out. There’s really no mechanics here, it’s all about the players.

Next time I might look at designing traps, either realistically or as a DM, and see whether that offers any food for thought.