Bad Trap Syndrome

“We approach the door.”
“Half way down the corridor you step on a trap and darts fly out of the walls! The first character in the marching order takes” (roll roll roll) “7 damage!”
(scribbles damage on character) “Okay, we keep going. Someone open the door.”

I’m willing to bet that in all the hours you’ve logged in dungeons, you’ve been in more good fights than good traps. Come to think of it, have you ever been in a good trap, a trap that actually added something to the game?

Why is that, you ask? Bad Trap Syndrome. It’s a sordid tale, a dysfunctional love triangle between rogues, traps and the GMs that make them…

Are You a Good Trap or a Bad Trap?

Traps fall into two basic categories: zap traps and interactive traps. The difference isn’t the kind of danger, it’s how they work in play.

A zap trap is over as soon as it starts: it inflicts immediate harm on the intruders (zap!) who don’t really get to do much more than make a save or hope they don’t get hit. The unfortunate victim steps on something or touches something and then something falls on them or stabs them, gasses them or whatever. Done, move along.

Making zap traps is easy. Just think of what is going to do the messy bit (darts, gas, jets of fire, crushing blocks, whatever) assign the damage, saves, etc. You can litter a dungeon with them in minutes flat.

They’re easy to make but they’re also bad gaming. Zap traps are wandering damage with a pretty description, a hit point tax for walking down the hallway, or (if you prefer) a very short fight where only one side gets to do anything. Just like Action Shticks, if you can’t really make any decisions–if you don’t interact with the situation–it fails the “is it a game” test. No choice, no game.

Which conveniently leads us to the alternative, the interactive trap. The interactive trap creates a situation the characters have to react to. They’re trapped in something or being threatened by impending danger or carefully navigating through something, but no matter which it is they get to make decisions about what to do.

Even the humble 10′ pit can be a minimal form of interactive trap, since if you survive you probably have to figure out a way of getting out of it or around it, but really juicy interactive traps have things like arrays of idols that shoot different beams out of their eyes when you step on certain squares, mazes of scything blades, etc etc.

Interactive traps are often really puzzles, even if the riddle the players are trying to solve is just “how do we get out alive.” Like any puzzle, it can take quite a bit of thought to design an interactive trap that is challenging but still solvable, not to mention stylish.

Rogue Busy Work

“It’s a trap!”
— Admiral Ackbar, typical rogue

Now let’s say you’re the GM. You’ve worked very hard to make a complex interactive trap. It’s a work of art. You’ve figured out how water slowly collecting in cisterns floods the chamber but then drains hours later after the intruders are dead and even raises the fallen block that sealed the room — because any serious trap has to be able to reset, right?

Along comes the rogue. Rogues are supposed to be the guy that finds all the traps and helps the party avoid all that damage. Lo and behold, the rogue can make a roll to find the trap and a roll to turn the whole thing off. Crap.

No GM wants to put all that work into something and then have the whole thing get cancelled by one roll, particularly if you were counting on it to fill play time. It’s like skipping a major battle you prepped because someone made a diplomacy check (oh sure, you all have anecdotes about that one time that happened and how cool it was — sheesh, it was one time!). It’s just a bad design work vs playtime pay-off.

So you subtly sabotage the rogue. You make it too hard to find the cool trap or you fudge the roll, and even though you are being a rat bastard GM your instinct is correct: making a roll to skip a whole encounter isn’t good game play (being clever and skipping an encounter, maybe, but just rolling clear is lame). If the encounter was interesting, you are skipping the interesting. It’s a little like rolling to skip the adventure.

But now you have guilt. You’re taking away the rogue’s whole thing. Hmm, better give the rogue something to do. Better put in a lot of zap traps in the rest of the dungeon so the rogue can be useful. Now the rogue can remove all the lame hazards that you shouldn’t have included to begin with. It’s rogue busy work.

The other option is to play it straight and you let the rogue bypass the trap you put spent all that time on. What does that teach you as a GM? Not to waste your time building cool traps. Next game you just put in more fights instead.

Welcome to Bad Trap Syndrome.

next up: Curing the bad trap blues

    Ben Robbins | March 20th, 2008 | , | hide comments
  1. […] is an old interesting article written by Ben Robbins about how to design better […]

  2. […] ? ars ludi: You should read everything Ben Robbins has ever written about GMing, but start with these two recent posts: Be Interested and Bad Trap Syndrome. […]

  3. […] Ars Lundi did a post on traps that reaches some of the same conclusions as I do. In the post, Ben Robbins calls the two […]

  4. #18 John says:

    I disagree with the premise that zap traps are always bad for gameplay. Of course, they’re not a game in themselves (like a combat encounter or a puzzle), but they can be a useful element of the larger game. No trap happens in a vacuum.

    Zap traps reinforce the danger of the environment and reward the players for being vigilant, and punish them for being reckless, in ways that make naturalistic sense — you open the Assassin Lord’s treasure vault with your bare hands? Of course there’s a poison needle trap! Why didn’t you check it first?

  5. #17 Nate M says:

    The prerequisite for detecting a trap is a mechanism that is identifiable as a trigger, actuator, or egress that is detectable via observation without activating it.

    I like Raiders of the Lost Ark’s intro scene as an example… In the entry hall, Indy spots the pattern of stones on the floor and their irregular levels, perhaps not a tell by itself, but the dubious holes in the walls on either side of those features suggest something more, so he tests his theory and discovers a trap. No means of deactivating the trap was viable… perhaps wasting time prying the stones up, or going along and jamming cloth into every hole, but ultimately, gingerly avoiding the mechanism was the easiest solution. Not all traps can be disarmed. Alas, GM Lucas robbed Indy of agency… not.

    Again, Indy detects (actually probably knew in advance from research, but lets assume he detected for the sake of the game narrative) of a trap-trigger on the dais under the idol… he has no way of determining what trap is, but Indy thinks on his feet of a solution to bypass the trigger… that determination, like the decision to walk around the triggers in the previous example, should be a matter of player choice, and not a post-roll ruling by a GM. So Indy places his sack of sand on the dais, but he failed the check (however the GM adjudicated it) to properly guess the weight of the idol when preparing the sack… and the trap triggers.

    Obviously, the descending wall and giant ball of doom went undetected… but for good reason. the falling walls were disguised effectively as architectural or natural elements, and further concealed by cobwebs and plant growth.

    Thieves are not entitled to a check to disarm a trap they do not understand, and sometimes, the only effective way to avoid triggering a trap is to avoid it entirely. One is not robbing a thief (or any player) of agency by not permitting them to deactivate a trap, nor does it rob agency to determine that the nature of the trigger is such that only one specifically versed in this particular trap would detect it, such as when the trigger spread over a large enough area that it indistinguishable as such.

    To make the trap experience fun for everybody is to have disabling the trap *not* be a simple roll of dice. Using the watery death trap example, make the mechanism activating it undetectable (perhaps the entire floor of the chamber, when enough weight shifts to the far side of the room, causes the floor to shift a scant millimeter, triggering the trap… So now the party is in the soup, literally. As the chamber begins to fill, they float upward, and now, knowing there is a trap and it’s nature, players ask pointed questions about what they see, and either via dialog or F/RT checks, the thief, determines there is a reset mechanism, and begins to work on it… Or maybe the scroll found on the ghoul in the previous area contains Airy Water, allowing the entire party to bypass the watery doom by waiting out the traps effects in a bubble of safely breathable air.

  6. #16 ben robbins says:

    @Christopher LaHaise:

    “The thing is, as a GM, handwaving ‘it doesn’t work’ is bad form.”

    That’s the whole point of the post. D&D trap design puts the DM in the position when they are encouraged to do that. It’s a bad design. Compensating for what the characters can do (and making lame traps instead of cool ones) is exactly what leads to the bad trap syndrome. The rules are not encouraging the DM to play well.

  7. #15 Christopher LaHaise says:

    I would disagree. If you set up an encounter, for example, and a PC gets the kill off before the bad guy even acts, so be it. It happens. (Shadowrun’s a great example for that, with the Petrify and Turn to Goo Spells, and just getting a damn good roll which blows through the enemy). Life (and death) happens, and a single roll can make all the difference.

    The thing is, as a GM, handwaving ‘it doesn’t work’ is bad form. If you’re expecting trouble, you plan ahead. The GM should know the character’s sheets well enough to determine what is needed to create extra steps in an encounter or event, but sometimes that won’t ever be enough.

    Ignoring what the PCs can do? Shouldn’t be done.

  8. #14 ben robbins says:

    @Christopher LaHaise: The problem is having part of the game that you skip with a roll in the first place.

  9. #13 Christopher LaHaise says:

    Actually, to show a bit why I consider this wrong:
    Lying about a rogue’s successful F/RT skill is like:
    Lying about a mage’s spell affecting the target.
    Lying about a warrior hitting with their weapon.
    Lying about a cleric turning undead.
    Lying about a bard’s successful Legend Lore check.

    And if you’re willing to do that, then you’re willing to…
    Tell a barbarian ‘you can’t use Rage at this time’
    Tell a paladin their complete immunity to poison and disease doesn’t work on THIS poison.

    If the character has an ability, it is because either you allowed it, or the game says this is what the character is capable of. If you want to make things tougher, you assign a penalty (and a realistic one at that), and hope the dice gods favour you.

    Otherwise, there’s no point in the characters having a ‘chance to succeed’, since it becomes a pure matter of GM fiat, which you can invoke at any time.

  10. #12 Christopher LaHaise says:

    I get what you’re saying about ‘zap’ vs ‘interactive’, and for the most part I agree – most traps should be interesting. However, I also prefer a degree of realism in my games – if someone wants to Kill You Dead when they set up their lair / dungeon / bungalo, they’re probably going to go for the path of least work, and ‘zap’ traps are probably it. The thing, of course, is to make these traps few and far between.

    The big thing, though, is saying you fudge the rolls so the thief doesn’t just disarm the trap, and to this, I disagree vehemently. With my players, if one bypasses the dramatic fight with diplomacy, or has a proper mcguffin for dealing with the bad guy quickly and efficiently, or the rogue finds the trap mechanism and disarms it – I don’t care if it is done by role or roleplaying. The PCs have tools built into their character sheet. As a GM, it is my job to let them use these tools – sabotaging the players is Bad Form unless it is done in a way that fits the adventure and part of the narrative. ‘The rogue has been hit with a sleep spell and failed their saving throw’ or ‘the PCs have been divided by a moving wall’ or whatever. Lying to the players (and I consider fudging a roll to be lying), is wrong. As a player? I don’t stand for it. As a GM? Same deal.

  11. #11 David says:

    The flooding room trap sounds like a TPK. It’s actually missing something, a way out. It makes the trap a whole lot more interesting and exciting because the players know that the characters will die if they don’t do something about it. Ofcourse, the trap is actually quite innocent. The only way the party can fail is if they don’t take any actions.

    Ofcourse, there’s still one question left unanswered: Why would anyone put traps in a dungeon?

  12. #10 Andrew Short says:

    In regards to the point of the GM designing his complex interactive trap only to have it summarily located and disabled, it seems to me a sensible course of action would be to allow the rogue her schtick and disable it, but then put the prepared trap aside in a kind of ‘to-do list’.
    This way, the time seemingly ‘wasted’ on designing the trap can be saved by not having to design one for a later encounter.

  13. #9 Gumby says:

    Do you feel any better about the 4e traps? They can still be disabled with Thievery, but usually require several standard actions to be spent in the danger zone doing so.

  14. #8 Sham aka Dave says:

    Thanks Ben, you are a class act. And you’ve made me feel a little less sheepish! Carry on with the great ideas and I’ll end this momentary interruption now. ;-)

  15. #7 ben robbins says:

    Thanks Sham, I appreciate that. And don’t let it stop you from using the ideas — all these ideas are made to be used, otherwise what’s the point?

  16. #6 Sham aka Dave says:

    errr I guess it would help if I sent you the link.

    Again, sorry for the improper links in the original posts!

    ~Sham aka Dave

  17. #5 Sham aka Dave says:

    Ben, I wanted to comment here about how great your two trap posts were. So great in fact, that I carelessly took your ideas and unintentionally passed them off as my own thoughts over on my blog. Apologies are in order, and I feel quite sheepish about the whole thing. I’m going to rectify this by linking in the appropriate posts, and at your request I can even remove said posts.

    Keep up the great blog.

    ~Sham aka Dave

  18. #4 ben robbins says:

    “I like the terms “zap” and “interactive” traps. Did you come up with that terminology?

    Yep. I suppose I should say I’ve been using them for years, but really they only crystalized as I was writing the article. I considered and discarded a lot of other terms that didn’t seem to hit the nail on the head.

  19. #3 Yax says:

    I like interactive traps that are triggered during combat. It adds an extra strategic element to a fight that is unique to the scene.

    I like the terms “zap” and “interactive” traps. Did you come up with that terminology?

  20. #2 Roleplay says:

    Meh, traps are too predictable. We should call them puzzles.

  21. […] at Ars Ludi you can see a two-part series on bad traps and what you can do to fix […]

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