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 | , | show 21 comments