Ask Angry: Traps Suck

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Kind of New GM returns to ask a follow up question:

Hey Angry sir, hope you aren’t angry.
I don’t know anything about traps. Please explain all of it, as much as you can.
Explain traps. Explain making traps, and running traps in game. Explain trap philosophy as well, since other GMs say different. Also, is it possible to make traps themselves into encounters? Into an obstacle course of some kind?

I hate questions like this. Because they aren’t really questions. It’s just an invitation to write about a thing for however long I want. I mean, sure, there are a couple of questions at the end. But the whole point of this Ask Angry crap is so that I can phone it in by just answering a nice, simple question. But, fine, whatever…

Traps. Traps… F$&%ing traps. I hate this question. I hate traps. I hate trying to explain traps. Because traps are a f$&%ing mess. There is no good way to deal with traps in D&D. No matter how you deal with them, they suck. But you will always get some a$&hole who insists their way “works just fine.” And that’s because people never see the tradeoffs they are making. I should probably disable comments on this one, but I won’t, because I like swearing at people and telling them they are wrong.

Traps suck. Okay? They suck. Trust me. No matter how you handle them, they suck. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but you have to do them. You have to do them because gamers glom onto the antisocial lone-wolf dips$&% character like flies on s$&%, so there’s always going to be one rogue at the table. And even if there isn’t a rogue at the table, everyone has seen Indiana F$&%ing Jones or played f$&%ing Uncharted or f$&%ing Tomb Raider or any other f$&%ing action-adventure video game in the world, so they ALWAYS expect traps. F$&%ing traps.

Okay, fourth paragraph. I’d better start actually explaining things.

Conceptually, a trap is sort of a huge problem in a role-playing game. An unattended trap (a real life one) is designed to be completely unexpected and either completely disabling or completely lethal. Anything less is a sucky trap. A trap someone can spot is a bad trap. A trap that hurts a person a little bit but lets them continue with their nefariousness is a sucky trap. For simplicity, we’re not going to talk about deterrents and alarms just yet. But I’ll get to them.

That is exactly what you don’t want in a RPG. You don’t want things to kill or disable the PCs with absolutely zero warning. Because, in RPGs, we call that “a dick move.” Even though it is completely legitimate. Now, you can argue that if the PCs fail to detect the trap, it’s their own fault and anything you do to them afterwards is nice and fair. But the problem is “detecting traps” in an RPG is also a load of bulls$&%.

There’s no real choice involved in detecting a trap. Look, let’s imagine you do it the sort of “by the book” way from 4E, since that was the closest to being reasonable. If someone’s Passive Perception is above the trap’s detection DC, you tell them the trap is there. “Bob, you see a trip wire.” If they fail to spot it, they might still decide to search the doorway. And then, they might spot the tripwire or they might not. Based on a die roll. And if they fail to spot it again, they trip the wire and set off the trap.

The problem with that is there’s no interesting choices. You might say “choosing where to search” or “whether to search” count as choices. But they aren’t. They come down to a matter of simple conditioning. If you, as a GM, rarely ever use traps, the PCs won’t search for them. If you use them frequently, the PCs will ALWAYS search for them EVERYWHERE. That isn’t a choice. That’s training. That’s getting them to salivate because you ring a f$&%ing bell.

Life gets worse once they actually find a trap. Because the game gives you a button called “Disable Device.” You spot the trap, you “roll to disable it.” It’s either disabled or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, usually it goes off in your face. And if it doesn’t, you just try to disable it again. Unless you are just not allowed to do that. In which case… well, all hell f$&%ing breaks loose as the players try to figure out what they are allowed to do that won’t bother the GMs ridiculous “metagaming” bans.

Nothing about that is interesting game play. Because it requires no interesting choices or cleverness on the part of the players. They are just slamming buttons and rolling dice.

At the same time, there is nothing wrong with the occasional booby trap. There is nothing wrong with a sudden setback that makes life a little harder. I know some whiny GMs will say otherwise. But there is literally nothing wrong with ambushing the party with a trap if they have a fair chance to spot it.

Now, there is ANOTHER type of trap. What I’ve been discussing above are booby traps. Traps that spring up, do something terrible, and disappear. Real, useful traps. But there are also what I call movie traps. I call them that because they are completely stupid and make no f$&%ing sense at all. But they make for cool movie scenes.

Those are the traps where the walls are closing in or the chamber is filling with water or the room has a whole bunch of tiles that will very obviously set off scything blades and spear traps. They are wholly stupid. But they make good action sequences. And the neat thing about them is that they do require some actual decisions.

When you lock the heroes in a chamber with no obvious exits that is slowly filling with water, what do they do? Do they try to reach and stopper the place where the sand is falling from? Do they search for the way out? Search for the trigger or reset mechanism? Do they try to stay on top of the sand until they climb out of the open roof they fell in through? Do they cast a teleport spell? Do they simply drown in sand?


Then you get that f$&%er playing the rogue who just says “well, I have Disable Device and I’m a rogue. I should know how to disable this trap even if I – as a player – don’t.” And, you know what? He’s not wrong. Disable Device – a magic “stop the trap” wand – doesn’t belong in that universe. Because it ruins the idea of the trap. But if it’s there, it’s not fair to say “well, this is a special type of trap that you can’t just disable.”

So what do you do?

First, booby traps. You can’t take them out. They have to be there. And they do add something to the game despite whiners insisting they don’t. But, there’s a few tricks to use. First, use them sparingly. And, as bizarre as it sounds, use them in obvious places. Foreshadow the hell out of them. If you teach your players that there is always a clue that there’s a trap about, you can keep them from dropping into paranoia territory. All you have to do is add some cues that tell the players WHEN to search. I mean, putting a chest on a dais in the middle of a bare room in an ancient temple with four evil statues staring directly at it? That screams “danger.” Good enough. But if there’s a fire trap in a hallway, note in your description the hallway smells slightly of oil. If the PCs don’t search and set off the fire trap, they will learn that the smell of oil is a clue and they will realize they should have been more suspicious. If they search, they will either find the trap or they won’t. DON’T KEY THIS S$&% TO DIE ROLLS! Give players legitimate clues that something is weird. Some GMs who aren’t as good as me will tell you that this is as good as telling your players when to search, but those GMs don’t understand their jobs. Yes, it IS as good as telling your players when to search, but it also makes them think searching was THEIR idea. So, when they find the trap, they feel rewarded for their clever assessment of the situation and attentiveness.

Now, once you train your players to recognize the clues to a trap, use the same booby trap more than once. Once the party learns either by searching or burning to be suspicious of the smell of oil, letting them find a few more traps that way makes them feel smart. Moreover, it gives the party a chance if they DON’T have a rogue. Even if they can’t spot a trap, they can learn that the smell of oil means they are going to get burnt. So they can take other precautions. Defensive spells, letting the fighter spring the trap and take the damage while everyone else hangs back, shields up, that kind of crap.

If you’re going to go this route though (and you should), it’s also important to reign in Perception and Searching a little. Don’t let people just search whole rooms or whole hallways. Let them search specific areas or specific features. And give them bonuses for searching for particular details.

For example, imagine the party sets off the fire trap and realizes the smell of burnt oil is a clue. So now, after the trap is done, they search for the triggering mechanism and the nozzle. They analyze the trap. Later on, when they smell oil, they search for those specific features in specific places. Reward that s$&%. Give them a bonus.

Hell, it may sound crazy, but I actually often let my players encounter an obviously triggered trap before they encounter a live trap. If they are smart enough to investigate the scorch marks and burnt skeleton and waste some time asking questions and making die rolls, they gain useful knowledge for later in the dungeon.

Again, other GMs will tell you I’m giving all the goods away, but those GMs don’t understand what challenge actually means and what their job is. A GMs job is to create obstacles and then empower the players to succeed against those obstacles so that, when they fail and they take damage, they know it was their own fault and they could have avoided it.

When you get really good at this, you start playing around with the players. After you train them to worry about the smell of burnt oil and let them find and defeat a few fire traps, you start hiding them in weird places or making life difficult. Later on in the temple, the heroes are passing through a hallway of magical darkness, feeling along the walls. They can’t see. But suddenly, they can smell burnt oil. Now what? Or, they have to climb down a shaft and they can smell oil wafting up. You really want to climb down there? You can’t exactly scout ahead, can you? Or, they find a room filled with broken amphoras and there’s lamp oil all over the floor. Is there a trap here? Who can say? Better search carefully because if it goes off, the whole room is going to explode. And hell, later on, when they encounter the ice beast, inexplicably summoned into the fire temple, they can get it to chase them into the room of lamp oil and trigger the trap they painstakingly searched out and avoided.

And that sounds pretty cool right? Way better than just scattering a few traps around to deal a few hit points and go away. And it is. But it still sucks. Why? Because that’s hard work. It takes time and effort to set that up. It takes planning. It’s extremely satisfying to the players, but you have to work at it. And they also take real creativity.

Now, as for movie traps, they make fun scenes all by themselves. But you have to plan them like a scene or encounter. Now, I can’t go into all of that here, but I did write a couple of good articles about encounter building that apply. Because, the trick is, it’s an encounter now. So, you need a goal (get the treasure, get across the room, escape the room, whatever), and you need to plan how the trap works. And you need to understand that trap well enough that the players can come up with clever ways to deal with it (everyone, pound spikes into the walls to stop the ceiling from slowly crushing us to death). Once you’ve got a good setup and you show the PCs exactly how they are going to die, you run it like any other scene. The players will attempt a plan, you decide if it can work, if it can fail, if there’s a risk associated with failure, and call for die rolls as needed. Maybe it only takes one good action to disable a trap. That’s fine. Non-combat encounters are generally quick and easy to resolve with one good plan. It’s no less satisfying to the players. They still feel like they escaped with their cleverness. And it’s also okay if the plan doesn’t require any die rolls at all. In fact, that often feels really good to the players because they feel like they were really smart if they “automatically succeeded.” See my article about Adjudicating Actions for more discussion on all of this crap.

But what about the pesky skills? Well, Searching and Perception can spot movie traps before they go off. That’s totally fine. Give the players a chance to see and disable the trap before it starts. But once the trap is rolling, the trigger is pretty useless. And getting at the mechanisms to disable the trap as it’s going off is usually pretty damned hard. The squashing ceiling trap usually involves counterweights and chains and gears hidden inside the walls. Good luck disabling those. The room filling with sand or water trap? Once it’s triggered, the trap is kind of done. Now the problem is there is a big, open hole with water coming through it. Not much to sabotage.

That might seem like an arbitrary screwjob and some rogues will take it as such. My advice is to establish very early what Disable Device (or whatever skill is in whatever system you’re using) can and can’t actually do. In my world, it’s a skill of mechanical (and sometimes magical) sabotage. You can f$&% with trigger mechanisms and you can f$&% with the actual mechanics of a trap, but otherwise, it will let you analyze how a trap probably works and maybe give you a clue about how to deal with it.

Anyway, this is, by far, the longest Ask Angry I’ve ever done and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I feel like I should do a whole feature article on this at some point. But I hope I’ve given you some other ways to look at traps.

Now, stop sending me these vague, general “hey, talk about this topic because I don’t understand this topic” questions. They suck!

Remember, if you want to keep seeing more of these articles, I could use your support. Buy some of my S$&% for Sale! 


8 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Traps Suck

  1. As a player I love a well done trap encounter, (I say encounter for a reason) I don’t like just random crappy traps however as to me they are a time waster and usually are placed in such ways that they make no sense.

    As a GM I hate traps with a passion simply due to the way the rules handle them and it creates a lot more work for me to create fun, engaging encounters with traps. However doing it is worth it, as players always seem to enjoy a well planned, well placed trap encounter.

  2. Oh, yeah… seriously. Who builds these one time use traps in their dungeons? “The trap in the treasure room was activated and now everything is covered in several inches of oil? We better move.” or “Three more minions fell into the pit trap filled with snakes today, we’ll need more minions and snakes!”

    These people need to learn to hide things in good ways that don’t require overly elaborate traps that a traveling gnome makes.

    • Tombs that are never supposed to be disturbed are one of the few justifications for those kinds of traps. If the dungeon’s occupied and being used or lived in by some creatures or beings, they should be able to get around without worrying about killing themselves.

  3. You know, I love Dungeon World. But this article sums up perfectly why I hate the way it deals with traps, particularly in relation to the mechanics the Thief has.

    I love how reasonable all of your “this thing sucks… Because it’s never used properly” articles are.

  4. I feel like you need to write an entire article about perception checks. Traps are based entirely on perception checks, many fights are based entirely on perception checks, seeing the 500 foot mountain that you are ten feet away from requires perception checks.
    I don’t think people realize this check is not supposed to be rolled just to use their eyes; just like an acrobatics check isn’t made every time you have to walk or a survival check made to go to the bathroom.
    Unfortunately perception is used so often that you cant even call yourself a power gamer without maxing wisdom and taking the observant feat.

  5. Pingback: The Advantages of Advantage | Rolling the Hard Six

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