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.
- Spot the danger – pressure-pad, dart holes, bloodstains, tripwires, runes, auras...
- Identify the danger – falling, being crushed, poison, a dropping portcullis, a collapsing bridge, attracting enemies...
- Neutralise or avoid the danger – find safe routes, block outlets, brace structures, disable mechanisms, dispel magic, bypass triggers
- Survive the danger – avoid attacks, break restraints, escape danger zones, destroy hazards, defeat creatures
- 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.