Bad Trap Syndrome (part 2), Curing the Bad Trap Blues

You are in a room. Before you are two doors. On the floor are ancient runes that say beyond one of these doors you’ll find the cure to the bad trap blues.

Choose wisely!

Door 1 — Writing a language of traps

To make more and better interactive traps we would need a language for traps. D&D has a complex language for combat and critters, but traps just borrow a little piece of it, usually to make more zap traps. When I made the traps for Death of Dr Null I extended things a little bit and laid out how each trap would operate each round, including rules for traps surprising or not surprising each character — if you’re not surprised, you get that much more opportunity to do something before the hammer drops.

A complete trap system would include building blocks for making multiple step interactive traps the same way the rules let you build elaborate types of monsters or characters, along with a subset of the combat system specifically for traps. What are the species of traps? How do you link these building blocks together to easily construct unique interactive traps? What kind of actions are appropriate in each? What can you do each round?*

The other rethink is to change how rogues or anyone else interferes with the trap. If the trap becomes a complex system like combat then the rogue can serve a prominent role during the interaction without stealing (or canceling) the show. Much the same way as a big armored fighter can protect other characters, the thief could weaken elements of the trap even while the party is in the middle of it. Poison darts strafe the party as they thread the idol maze, but because of the rogue’s warning everyone gets a bonus to their save. The rogue doesn’t prevent the water from filling the room, but his quick actions partially block the spigots giving the party more time to escape before the room fills up.

Door 2 — Traps as Role-playing

Like a lot of groups we’ve been getting back to our roots and playing some old school Basic D&D in memory of Gary Gygax. We’re talking a low-level dungeon crawl, 10′ poles, iron rations, the works.

When I made the dungeon I did something a little unusual: I made all the traps easy to spot.

Yep, no surprise traps. You might not know exactly _what_ the trap is, but it is always pretty clear there is something dangerous. It might be the remnants of past victims (a litter of half-melted bones scattered in front of one unusual door…) or some particularly suspicious detail (why is there an open spiked pit at the bottom of that staircase?).

Part of it is just game world logic: if there are monsters and other people tromping around, the only trap that would still be a hazard is one that resets, which means other things would have been killed before and their remains would still be there. A one-shot trap would have to literally be somewhere no one had ever gone before to still be a hazard. The other part is game balance: low level D&D can naturally be quite lethal, since any damage roll is a potential instant kill for the average character. The thief? Yeah, he has a 10% chance to find traps.

The interesting part is that removing the surprise and basically announcing there’s a trap (for anyone who’s paying attention) completely changes the dynamic of play. Instead of being a hit point tax for walking down the hall, it becomes, well, a game. The players huddle, they have their characters look around, they brainstorm possible dangers and ways to get around them. And since this is old school D&D and the no Spot check rule applies, they really do have to think and ask questions to figure out the problem. Even zap traps become interactive because the players are interacting with them before they go off.

Sure, even with all the time in the world and all the evidence to examine sometimes they come to completely incorrect conclusions about how the trap will work and walk smack into the buzz saw anyway (“it’s not a door, it’s a grey ooze pretending to be a door? Crap!”), but even when that does happen the players are engaged rather than turned off.

Why? They are seeing the results of their decisions (successful or disastrous) rather than being hit with something they couldn’t do anything about.

* yeah I know, some of you are screaming “system grids! system grids!” but we’ll have to save that for another time

    Ben Robbins | March 20th, 2008 | , | show 16 comments