Traps!

06Jul13

mousetrap

Your party of intrepid adventurers bravely explores some shady grotto, sunken temple, or mildew-scented dungeon. The players advance cautiously, their eyes peeled, ears aquiver, nostrils flared. Everything proceeds smoothly until WHAM-O! Without warning, the sound of plastic polyhedrons clattering on the table top. Attack rolls, damage, saving throws. Your party triggered a trap.

Traps don’t work for me. Too often they destroy my suspension of disbelief. For a trap to be effective, it must be a.) lethal b.) nearly impossible to detect or disarm and c.) installed in such a manner that its creator is unlikely to accidentally trigger the trap themselves.

Let’s look at the first element: lethality. The ideal trap is designed to kill and / or maim, but the more effective the trap is, the less pleased your players will be when you wallop them with it. In Dungeons & Dragons, character death must always be a possibility, but everyone wants to go down swinging. Everyone wants a heroic death. They want to punch the Tarrasque in the uvula as it swallows them whole. Nobody wants to lose a character when a hundred-ton load of bricks falls on their heads, or when they tumble down a sixty foot shaft and land on a dozen adamantium spears smeared with owlbear poo. There’s no real struggle in that, no conflict, no choices to be made. No agency. But traps by their very nature are designed to rob players of agency. For a trap to function as intended, it must be unavoidable.

Which brings us to our second element: detection and disarmament. A trap is generally no good if its intended victim can see it coming. But if your players are anything like mine, they are hyper-vigilant. It’s nearly impossible to surprise them, because they’re content to explore a dungeon in a series of five-foot steps, stopping constantly to search every conceivable surface for any pressure plate, tripwire, or panel that might trigger a trap. They poke with fifteen foot poles. They tie ropes around the waists of slain hobgoblins and drag the bodies along with them, tossing the corpses into unknown corridors to sound their path for danger. They drive herds of sheep into the Tomb of Horrors.

Tombs2

“INSERT SHEEP HERE.”

The only time a trap should be obvious is when there’s no way for the victims to escape its effects, e.g. a sealed room that slowly floods, or one where the ceiling lowers to crush anything beneath it. There’s no drama in that. For a trap to create conflict, players need to be able to detect, avoid, or disarm it. The players must be able to take some sort of positive action. But traps are fundamentally unfair. They’re not designed to be detected, avoided, or disarmed. Traps are created and installed by villains, and villains shouldn’t give their enemies a fighting chance.

And thus we reach our final point of discussion: the safety of the trap’s creator. Also known as: “Why do we even have that lever?”

lever

Too often in movies and games, the heroes encounter some improbable, intricate, Rube Golberg-esque trap, and my immediate reaction is to wonder: “Who on Earth would build that?” Perhaps the trap’s construction would pose a significant danger to its creator, such as the one-way tunnel lined with broken glass in Heavy Rain or the razor-wire maze in the original Saw film. Or maybe the trap covers a vital pathway, such as the entrance to a keep or the only stairwell in a wizard’s tower. People are creatures of habit. We fall into routines. We get lazy. We get sloppy. We get careless. We forget to lock our doors. We forget to activate our burglar alarms. We forget to arm / disarm our traps. Imagine what would happen if you were an evil warlock, and you forgot to step on the third floor tile with the engraving of the monkey instead of the second floor tile with the engraving of the goose. WHAM-O! Scything blades, spike pits, boiling oil, toxic slime, hails of venomous scorpions…

Traps don’t work for me. Perhaps they work for you, but I can’t reconcile the form (a device designed for maximum lethality but minimum risk to its creator) with the function (screwing my players over, or forcing them to play in a manner that amounts to hyper-paranoid meta-gaming).

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One Response to “Traps!”

  1. 1 Ross M

    Paul, totally agree. I’ve always felt most RPGs put too much emphasis on traps, secret doorways, and thieving in general because of Tolkein’s influence. I mean, let’s be honest here – how many adventurers would rather play a thief/rogue than a wizard, barbarian, or cleric? I suspect not that many except they know their party will need one, entirely due to our D&D legacy of placing traps all over the place. (Also, by the time a party starts reaching mid levels of 10-15 nearly every niche the Rogue filled at lower levels can be replaced by the new skills and spells of Rangers, Wizards, Warriors, etc. which I think is even more of an argument that we have artificially produced a demand for them.)

    The ONLY time I find traps appropriate are in deliberately abandoned archeological sites like Egypt’s great pyramids. Those real-world mausoleums did include traps, because the pharaohs knew that otherwise their afterlife belongings would be pilfered by grave robbers. So while there may be the occasional instance where something like this could come up in an RPGS, I think it’s far more realistic to occasionally confrontthe party with non-lethal alarm systems. Much more realistic, and because it tends to be non-lethal it’s easier to lull them into a sense of complacency over time.

    I also have some thoughts about how much easier it is for players sitting around a table to keep their characters constantly vigilant, as opposed to how easy it is to become far too inured to danger to constantly maintain a state of “red alert,” but that probably deserves an entirely new post.



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