Wednesday 23 January 2013

Fair Traps

You got Gygax-ed!
DoS's recent post brought up an issue I've been thinking about lately.  I'm not crazy about his approach there, but I do agree with his basic assumption that traps, if done poorly, can hurt player agency.

DoS's example of this are Gygax's published traps which could be quite vicious, often only being avoidable by dumb luck or perhaps telepathy on the player's part. This perhaps fits with a more Simulationist-approach to game design, the real world often throws us unlooked-for hazards, but it doesn't necessarily make for the most fun game-play experience.

So the general solution seems to be to make sure players play an active role in attempting to avoid/disarm traps.  But the practical question still remains of how to do this?

1. Fair Warning

So, players should have a chance of avoiding the trap.  That means fair warning.  DoS already gave his version of this, saying:
I want traps that are so obviously traps that the player can't say "didn't see that coming" unless they were asleep.
That's one way of doing Fair Warning.  On the other end of the spectrum, one could claim that those Gygax traps give fair warning, since players knew, upon entering the dungeon, that they would need a 10 foot pole, a scout, and all their ingenuity to avoid the traps.

I personally prefer something in the middle, between these two extremes, fair warning, but more subtle.  If there's a pressure-plate trap in the floor, the DM should at least describe the floor tiles in his description of the corridor.  Some hook to give the players a chance to say "Hey, maybe we should pay attention to that".  And if the characters open a chest or secret door without checking for traps, that's their problem.

2. Setting Appropriate Traps

This one's a little more subtle, but I think it goes a long way towards giving the players a chance to anticipate the traps they will encounter.  For this, the DM has to ask himself questions about the traps in the dungeon:

  • Who set the traps?
  • When were the traps set?
  • What resources/technology did they have at their disposal?

These questions will limit the types of traps the DM can use and will help limit the the players to anticipate what types of traps to be on the lookout for.

For instance, if the traps were set by the Tomb's builders, thousands of years ago, then they probably won't have any metal parts which would rust away, and some may have already been sprung by previous tomb robbers(thus giving players an example of what to look out for).

If they were set recently by mischievous Hobgoblins, then they will be more primitive in nature: tripwires, nets, concealed bear traps.

If they were set by a Wizard, guarding his tower from intruders, so they will generally be magical in nature.

And if they were set by an insane genius inventor, then they might include some of Grimtooth's entries.


  1. I've come to the conclusion that I want any traps in my dungeons/adventures to require a player decision to trigger them. By this I don't mean; G: There's a trap ahead, Player: I step on the pressure pad. I mean, like DoS, that enough information should be provided in order for the players to make a decision about how they will proceed.

    I suppose it depends on the scale of the risk. Having a nigh-on undetectable dart trap that does only 1d4 damage might itself be a form of information. It says, as the players trigger it, 'this place is trapped, proceed with caution.' A Save or Die trap, on the other hand, needs forewarning of some kind.

    Caveat: Unless the players are stupid and reckless, in which case their PCs deserve to glorious death that awaits!

    1. That may be what he meant. Maybe when he said "I want traps that are so obviously traps..." he was speaking hyperbolically.

      I like that idea of having traps that serve as a warning that there are nastier things to come.