Hide and Seek: Traps

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Banner Patreon 800 x 100

I’ve been thinking about hidden s$&% lately. And by lately, I mean over the last several months. All of that bulls$&% with time pools and core rules, that all started because I wanted a way to handle hidden things in Dungeons & Dragons better. Hidden things made me think about stealth. Stealth made me wonder about different modes of play. And different modes of play led me to wonder whatever happened to those modular extra rules that Wizards of the Coast promised as a way to convince us not to be mad about having to drop $150 on the same books we’d already bought numerous times just because there was a bigger number on the front.

Point is, I’ve been thinking about hidden things in D&D adventures. See, I play a lot of exploration-based video games. I LOVE hunting for secrets. And I’m drawn to games with lots of s$&% to find: hidden treasures, collectibles, audio and text logs, secret passages, all that s$&%. Hell, the last three games I played obsessively to completion were Alien: Isolation, Doom and Prey.

Hunting down hidden s$&% – let’s call it scavenger hunting – scavenger hunting should be an awesome part of Dungeons & Dragons, right? I mean, Dungeons & Dragons has a lot of exploration built right into it. And finding hidden s$%& is pretty much THE payoff for exploration. And yet, in this, D&D kind of sucks.

As I’ve said before, my goal is to develop a comprehensive set of modular rules that allows the GM to hide s$&% in adventures for the players to find. In a FUN way. Not a sucky way. But before building a pile of new rules, it’s important to understand a couple of things. First, how do the OLD RULES actually work and second, how SHOULD the new rules work conceptually.

Today, we’re going to look at the first of three types of things that GMs might hide in their adventures and answer those questions. We’re going to look at traps. How do they work right now in D&D? And how should they work?

No One Reads Anymore

Last week, I discovered that no one knows how traps currently work in D&D. See, I did one of those Twitter polls I sometimes do. This one was about the difference between Intelligence (Investigation) and Wisdom (Perception). Specifically, I asked people to tell me how they – as GMs – determined when to use one of those skills over the other. I got a lot of different answers, but almost all of them boiled down to a simple dichotomy: Perception was for passively noticing something, Investigation was for actively searching for something. When someone walked into a room with a trap, for example, they had a chance to spot that trap outright. That was determined by either Passive Perception or a Perception check. And if the character searched the room for traps, the outcome was determined by an Investigation roll.

Either way, the result of a successful check was the same. The GM would tell the player about the presence of the trap and invite them to disarm it.

The distinction between spotting and searching isn’t new to D&D. It appeared in D&D’s 3rd Edition. 3E included two distinct skills: Spot and Search. And they were used as described above. One was for casually noticing stuff, one was for actively searching for stuff. Spot was based on Wisdom, being more reliant on awareness. Search was based on Intelligence, being more reliant on deduction and inference.

Side note: that distinction is stupid.

With the culling of the skill list in D&D’s 4th Edition and with the addition of Passive Perception, there was no reason to have two separate skills anymore. Passive Perception covered the spotting, and an active Perception check covered the searching. And that made a lot of sense. The distinction between spotting and searching, after all, is really about the distinction between actively and passively using your senses.

When D&D 5E added the Investigation skill under Intelligence, it seems like lots of folks assumed that they were just bringing back the Spot/Search distinction. But that would have been a really dumba$% thing to do. Now, WotC does do a lot of dumba$& things, but this wasn’t one of them. It turns out, if you actually f$&%ing read the rules, Investigation is not anything like searching at all. Searching and spotting both fall under Perception skill. Investigation is different. The problem is, to really understand the difference between Perception and Investigation, you have to read PHB 177 to 178 – including the sidebar on Hidden Objects, DMG 103 to 104, and DMG 120 to 123. And then you need to ignore a few unclear phrases and some outright contradictions. But if you do that and put it all together, you’ll actually a clear picture of the distinction between Investigation and Perception.

Perception is for discovering sensory information. Anything you can see, hear, feel, touch, or taste. Under normal circumstances, you don’t need to roll any dice or compare any numbers. You see what you can see and hear what you can hear. But occasionally, sensory details might escape your notice or they might be hidden from you. Some things are tiny and easily overlooked. Some things are quiet and not easily overheard. And some things are camouflaged or concealed or disguised.

In those circumstances when something might go unnoticed, the GM uses Perception to determine whether any of the characters notice it. First, the GM sets a DC. Then, the GM compares the DC to each characters’ Passive Perception. If a character’s Passive Perception is equal to or greater than the DC, the GM reveals the detail. Otherwise, it goes unnoticed. However, a player who suspects there might be something hidden can choose to search for it. In that case, the player rolls a Perception check against the same DC. And it should be noted that, according to PHB 178, the player is REQUIRED to describe where they are searching and what they are interacting with.

So, if Perception covers both passively spotting things and actively searching for things, what is Investigation? Well, Investigation is for making deductions based on clues. But you could be forgiven for not understand what that actually means. The description of the skill on PHB 178 isn’t very clear and it outright contradicts some of the specific uses for Investigation described in the other citations I listed. But it’s those other citations that actually make it clear. And, in D&D, specific beats general.

Investigation lets you reach conclusions based on sensory information, but – and this is important – that sensory information must already be available. Despite what the skill’s description says about “searching for clues,” those clues come from Perception. The example given in the book of using Investigation to determine what kind of weapon might have inflicted the fatal wound on a corpse bears this out. The sensory information – the wound itself – is obvious. No Perception roll is needed. And the reference in the description to “deducing the location of a hidden object” is directly contradicted by the sidebar on the very same page, as well as in the DMG several times.

The DMG actually provides some clear examples of when and how to use Investigation. For example, after you notice the strange breeze and misplaced seam in the wall that doesn’t line up with the masonry using Perception, Investigation allows you to deduce the existence of the secret door and figure out the mechanism that opens it. And after you notice the treasure chest is bolted to the floor and there are strange holes in the wall behind the chest as part of an elaborate mural, Investigation allows you to figure out how the arrow trap works well enough to sabotage it.

That means that the GM must draw a clear distinction between sensory information and deductions based on that information. That is, the GM shouldn’t say “you discover an arrow trap” or “you found a secret door,” as the result of a successful Perception check. Instead, the GM must limit himself to describing exactly the details the character noticed that might lead to those conclusions but not the conclusion itself.

Of course, after failing an Investigation check on further examination of those sensory details, the players could still guess what those details mean. At least in some situations. If the players notice the seam and the breeze and the bookshelf, they might just guess that there is a secret door and it is opened by moving one of the books. And then the characters might simply try to move all the books. And all the torch sconces. And anything else. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Especially because, in some situations, they might guess wrong. What appears to be a secret door might actually be the mechanism for a trap. Perhaps a panel that slides open and allows a swarm of ravenous spider-rats into the room if the players disturb the books. They might regret their attempts to open it.

The GM must be mindful that these rules create three tiers of hidden information. First, there’s information that is obvious, but requires interpretation. That’s information that requires only an Investigation check: “what weapon inflicted the deadly wound.” Next, there’s information that isn’t obvious, but requires no interpretation. That’s information that requires only a Perception check: “there is a small, folded note hidden in the victim’s boot.” Finally, there’s information that is not obvious and requires interpretation. That’s information that requires both a Perception check to turn up the sensory details and an Investigation check to understand the results: “there is a tiny, discolored pin prick on the back of the victim’s neck; he was jabbed with a poisoned needle.”

Now, I have to admit I might be wrong about all of this. As I said, the books are a bit unclear and slightly contradictory. I’m guessing at what the designers SEEM TO HAVE INTENDED. And it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong. Hell, some of the details suggest that WotC themselves aren’t entirely clear on what they intended. Honestly, the fact that I can deduce an actual pattern from this s$&% might be a fluke. The designers themselves may have just said “f$&%ed if we know!” And given that the core of the distinction seems be hanging on the increasingly arbitrary, bulls$&% distinction between Intelligence and Wisdom, who f$&%ing knows at this point.

But here’s what I do know: the distinction that I THINK was intentional, the one I described? Personally, I think it potentially leads to a better game than the old Spot and Search distinction. Especially when it comes to trap mechanics. So, let’s get back to those now.

How Traps SEEM to Work in D&D 5E

To be fair, the DMG is pretty clear about how traps work. Seriously. Check out DMG 120 to 123. It’s all there. The problem is, for some reason, the geniuses at WotC decided to present specific rules for each specific trap rather than general rules for all traps. I don’t know why. There does seem to be a general pattern that could have been spelled out more clearly and there is a prose discussion that tries to spell out some general rules. But some of the specific traps deviate from the general form.

A trap consists of two parts: a trigger and a terrible thing that happens when the trap is triggered. Let’s call that the effect so I don’t have to type out “terrible thing that happens when the trap is triggered” over and over again. A trigger might be described as a specific device, like a tripwire or a pressure plate, or it might be described as an action that causes the trap to go off, like turning a door knob or opening a chest. That includes magically triggered traps that will go off when a specific area is entered or an object is touched.

The effect describes what happens when the trap is triggered. It describes it in terms of what happens in the world and in terms of game mechanics. For example, a spear trap might cause spears to shoot up out of small holes in the floor covering a 10-foot square area around the treasure chest. Those spears might make a melee attack roll against each creature in the area with a specific attack bonus and deal a specific amount of piercing damage on a miss.

It’s important to understand that the trap is more than just a name and some game mechanics. The trigger and the effect are described clearly. And that information is used to determine what sensory information might be available about the trap, such as the holes in the floor and the fact that the chest is bolted to the floor. That information also allows the GM to adjudicate creative ways of dealing with the trap. It is specifically noted on DMG 121 that the players’ are encouraged to take actions to mitigate or foil the trap based on whatever information they have and whatever guesses they make.

Each trap includes mechanical information about how the traps might be detected and disarmed. And here is where I will admit the DMG gets a little “f$&% if I know” about when Investigation checks are required and when Perception checks should be used. But the basic format for each trap is the same. The trigger is described, the effect is described, the ways it might be detected are described, and the obvious ways it might be circumvented are described.

Why Traps Suck in 5E

So, what’s wrong with the…

Okay, before I launch into explaining why 5E’s rules for traps suck, I need you to note that I am not talking about the why the IDEA of a trap sucks. I know some GMs HATE traps in games. That’s fine. Those GMs are just bad and they should feel bad. Because, CONCEPTUALLY, there is nothing wrong with traps. It’s the specific executions of traps in various games and adventures that suck. And part of those specific executions come from the self-same GMs who HATE traps. Yeah, a lot of the people who hate traps inadvertently make them hateful by using them badly and then blame all traps ever. Someday, I will talk about how to use traps in adventure design. But what I’m talking about here is the pure, mechanical way in which encounters with traps are resolved in D&D? I don’t need any of those “this whole article sucks because traps suck in all games ever blargle wargle garble!!!!1!!1!” comments, thanks.

So, what’s wrong with the mechanical execution of traps in D&D 5E? To be honest? Not as much as you think. I mean, it’s garbled as f$&%, but that’s the problem with D&D 5E in general. It’s a good game, presented very badly. There isn’t much consistency, but the basic ideas are good. That’s a damned good framework for traps here.

D&D is being smart in that it is trying to get away from the idea that traps are for the rogue. Most GMs think there’s only ever a reason to put traps in the game if the party has a rogue who can disarm traps. But that’s a f$&%ing stupid viewpoint. That’s like thinking you should only put kobolds in an adventure if there’s a wizard in the party who can put them all to sleep. Rogues are just the easiest way of dealing with traps. They aren’t – and shouldn’t be – the only way. They are the sleep spells of traps-dealing-withery.

And that brings us to something else. A lot of GMs – strangely, many of the same ones who think traps are for the rogue – think traps are only good when they go off. They think that any trap the party detects and disarms or avoids is a waste of time. If it didn’t hurt the party, the party didn’t overcome a challenge. And that’s also a stupid viewpoint. That’s like thinking that if the party managed to get through a combat encounter unhurt, they don’t deserve any experience points because they weren’t really challenged.

Amusingly – if you find abject stupidity funny, anyway – amusing enough, when you combine these two attitudes, you will generally conclude that traps suck. These two ideas are, in fact, half the reason people think traps suck. Think about it. If you think traps are only there for rogues to disarm and traps are only good when they are undetected and undisarmed, there’s really no good way to use traps, is there?

Here’s the f$&%ing truth: a trap that goes undetected until it goes off and hurts someone is the least interesting type of trap there is. There’s nothing exciting or engaging there. It doesn’t require any choices. It doesn’t reward or punish any choices. It’s just a kick in the d$&%.

A trap only becomes interesting when the party has a chance to deal with it. And I don’t mean deal with it by rolling a saving throw to take half damage from a kick in the d$&%. A trap is interesting when the party knows there is a trap in the way and has to deal with that. Do they avoid it and risk stumbling over it later? Do they sabotage it? Do they just leave the treasure chest alone? Do they set off the trap and take the kick in the d$&% in return for the sweet, sweet treasure? And can they do any of that?

But traps aren’t just interesting because of the choices and challenges they create. Traps also provide a way of rewarding players for their skill and ability choices. When the elf with Keen Senses and proficiency with the Perception skill spots the tripwire just before the fighter blunders into it, that player feels good about choosing to play an elf and selecting Perception as one of their limited proficiency choices. They get a warm fuzzy.

Despite being a confused mess, the D&D trap system potentially makes traps interesting and fun in both of those ways by creating several levels of possible interaction with a trap. If the party detects the trap’s trigger or its mechanisms, they can investigate and gain further information. With that information, they can attempt to sabotage the trap. If they succeed, the trap is eliminated and they win. Three die rolls, each one rewarding a different combination of ability and proficiency choices, have the potential to make three different players feel the warm fuzzies. But with each die roll, the D&D trap system is doing something very interesting. It’s shifting the potential intrinsic rewards in the scene. What do I mean?

Suppose the party detects the mechanisms via Perception, but fails to interpret the information via Investigation. Now, they have partial information. They know something about the trigger or the mechanism or both. And now they have the opportunity to overcome the trap via clever means or to make the hard choice to spring the trap or avoid it. If they succeed now, instead of the warm fuzzy that comes with having the right skills and abilities for the job, they have the warm fuzzy of being clever and overcoming an obstacle. Hell, even if they succeed at the Investigation roll, they might still face a tough choice if they don’t have the means to disarm the trap. They might even face a tough choice if they do have the means. After all, if that rogue fails his attempt to sabotage the trap, he’s probably going to take that kick in the d$&% right in the face. Rogues are not terribly durable. I know, I’ve killed a lot of them. And after three or four kicks in the d$%&, they aren’t generally happy to take a fifth.

Once the party knows a trap is there, they have a chance for either their skill choices or their cleverness to pay off. And being a rogue is not a prerequisite. Everyone can make Perception and Investigation checks. And D&D is smart about that too. The Perception DCs for detecting most of the specific traps in the book aren’t aggressively high. And using both Passive Perception and active search rules increase the odds that a smart party will see a trap coming.

So, what DOES suck about the D&D system? Well, there’s a few things. A few things apart from the focus on specific trap rules instead of a general form and the general garbled and contradictory stuff about when to use Perception and when to use Investigation.

First, searching in D&D doesn’t cost anything. Not just for traps. Searching doesn’t ever cost anything. Unless there is a ticking clock spelled out in a specific adventure, time has no value in D&D. And since searching carries no cost, it’s to the party’s advantage to search everything everywhere all the f$&%ing time. Unless they know that their GM never includes traps or secret doors or hidden treasures in the game, players should search constantly. After all, there might be something hidden anywhere and if the cost of the search is just a quick die and the party can make five attempts at every search, not searching is just stupid.

Every GM has dealt with the search-crazy player. It ain’t fun. You want the players to think about where they are searching. You want them to respond to environmental clues and make logical deductions and only search when they suspect there is something to find. If the players search everywhere, it slows the game right the f$&% down. But it also means that, when the players do find anything, they aren’t being rewarded for their cleverness. They are only finding things because of their persistence and random chance.

What D&D needs is a cost for searching. Some kind of risk or cost associated with taking too much time. Maybe some sort of system for tracking time and building tension based on the amount of time being wasted. But lacking that, D&D needs some way to make the search costly or risky or painful so there’s a reason to NOT search.

D&D also needs a way to make traps interesting when they do go unnoticed and when they get sprung. Some kind of rule wherein a player could react based on limited information to something that was about to happen. Suppose, for example, the players could hear the click of a trap’s pressure plate and then have to declare an action like “jump backward” or “raise my shield in front of me” or “dive to the ground.”

My so-called “CLICK!” rule would actually play well the with the layers of sensory information and interpretation that D&D 5E almost manages to make a part of the game. The rogue who fails his check to sabotage the trap can decide to “roll away from the scything blades” because he’s already analyzed the trap. The party that saw the holes from which the arrows will fire can dive to the ground when the trap goes off while they were blundering around looking for the trigger and hopefully allow some of the arrows to sail over their head. Thus, the information the players did manage to gather or guess can mitigate some of the effects of the trap even when d$&% kicks start getting doled out.

And speaking of those layers of sensory information, it would actually be helpful to have a couple of layers of sensory information to help guide the party toward investigating further. First of all, different aspects of a trap might require different Perception check DCs to discover. For example, the slot from which the scything blade will swing might be fairly obvious even under the layers of cobwebs (DC 15), but the small and expertly hidden pressure switch in the floor might not be so obvious (DC 20). Moreover, there could be a layer of sensory information that merely encourages the party to search the area which would work well with Passive Perception. A Passive Perception score of 10 might reveal only that the “wall seems odd here, but you can’t put your finger on why.” That might encourage an active search that would turn up the slot for the scything blade or even the pressure plate.

How To Unsuck Traps

D&D has laid a foundation for how traps should work. It’s a wobbly foundation, sure. Not the greatest. But it’s strong enough that it’s worth shoring up instead of burying and starting again. And based on what I’ve already said above about what D&D is doing right and wrong, there’s already a pretty good conceptual picture of how traps should work. So, let’s just parse that picture down to its barest elements.

GMs and game designers must have a clear understanding of what triggers a trap and what happens when the trap is triggered. That understanding allows for one or more layers of sensory information that can be discovered about the trigger or the trap’s effect or both. While it is possible that either a trap’s trigger or its effect might be beyond notice, one or the other must provide some clue. A trap that is completely undetectable sucks. They must also know the basic methods by which a trap might be sabotaged. And the GM must be willing to adjudicate other actions the players might take to mitigate the trap.

When the party approaches a trap, the GM should determine, based on Passive Perception, what sensory details the party notices outright. If they don’t notice any details, the GM might at least give them a clue that something is off and warrants further scrutiny depending on Passive Perception.

Should the party choose to specifically search an object or area that contains a trap, the GM should determine, based on Perception checks, what sensory details the party notices. The choice to search must involve some kind of risk, cost, or trade-off.

Once the party has uncovered the sensory details that indicate there is a trap, they can choose whether further investigation is warranted. If the party chooses to accept a further risk, cost, or trade-off, they can spend some time examining the mechanism and determine information about how the trap might work and how it might be disarmed. This is determined by an Investigation check.

The party might decide to sabotage to trap, assuming someone in the party is capable of using the right tools. They might do so whether or not they have made a successful Investigation check to understand the trap. But, if they haven’t made such a check, the GM may ask them some specific questions about how they are doing it and may assess penalty for disarming the trap blindly. Alternatively, disarming a trap blindly might carry no penalty – assuming the party guesses at a viable method – but disarming it after a successful Investigation might carry a bonus. In addition to disarming the trap with thieves’ tools, the party might attempt other methods to disarm or thwart or bypass or mitigate the trap with jury-rigged or MacGyvered solutions, which the GM will have to adjudicate normally.

If the trap goes off, each member of the party should be asked how they respond to whatever cue the trap might provide. The party might hear the click of the trigger mechanism or see the shimmer of the magical detection spell. If they don’t know what the trap does, they will have to guess at how to react in that split second. Their reactions should be used to modify attack rolls, saving throws, or other mechanics appropriately, even changing them into automatic successes or failures depending on the specifics.

An entire scene with a trap should play out in five to ten minutes. And when combined with logical placements, foreshadowing, and good adventure design, traps should become a lot more interesting, engaging, and fun. It’s definitely a lot better than the old days of “roll a search roll, roll to disarm, roll a saving throw.” Well, that may be overselling it. After all, in the really old days when rogues sucked at disarming traps, there was a lot more jury-rigging and MacGyvering and a lot less clattering of dice. Granted, there were also a lot more kicks in the d$&%. So maybe this is a happy medium.

Banner Patreon 800 x 100

41 thoughts on “Hide and Seek: Traps

  1. Wonderful! I love the distinction between perception and investigation – that one has always bothered me.

    I know you are busy writing a slew of articles this week, but is there any chance we could get an example of how this would be written into a module? Maybe for a classic pit trap and a more complex magical trap?

  2. It seems like this entire issue can be averted by removing “dice skills” altogether. If the players see a seam that doesn’t line up with the masonry and feel a breeze coming from it, *that* is the deduction that there’s a secret door there.

    After finding the door, then they have to figure out how to activate it. Pull the torch on the wall? Say a command word? Just push the damn thing open? Whatever. It’s infinitely more interesting to run it that way than to say, “I rolled a 16.” “Okay, you opened the door.”

    • For example, the dwarf makes his perception check and he is told, “You notice that the masonry leading toward the torch on the wall is newer on the right side, as if it had been torn down and rebuilt after the sconce was placed.”

      Gives just enough information to lead the characters into action.

    • I would say the dice aren’t helping, but maybe a passive investigation threshold is warranted. So the fighter sees a murder-hole and sherlock sees a scythe path from the same information.
      Of course for some features the means investigating by handling or examining specific features.

    • Angry’s mentioned how he questions if intelligence should even be a stay for similar reasons.

    • I think Torchbearer bascally has an interesting rule on this, its called Describe To Live, basically before the GM can say to a player roll the dice the player must describe what they are doing in the fiction and then the GM decides what skill is being chosen. Yeah its pretty simple but my god GMs should do this, they should never ever allow a player just to roll the dice because otherwise why the hell are we playing an RPG in the first place. Better to play a boardgame because at least their is a visual on the table.

  3. [Comment removed because it’s about why traps do or don’t suck which was explicitly forbidden in the article]

  4. I think it would be great if we could have a “trap template” based on your analysis:

    [Trap name]
    – Description: the way that the trap looks when armed. Perception check DC __ –
    – Trigger: what activates the trap.
    – Efecct: the way the trap behaves when activated. Attack & damage here.
    – Bypass: one or more ways the players can circunvent the trap. Investigation Check DC ___ –

    • That is basically how 5e tries to present it, but I have to agree with Angry that it can be smoothed out and improved upon slightly.

        • The Unearthed Arcana article they released on Traps a few months back expands on a uniform presentation of traps, along with adding some information on Simple vs. Complex traps. (Complex Traps being a sort of larger scale encounter area with MULTIPLE traps. Think of the obstacle course scene from First Knight, for instance.)

          None of the stuff in the article contradicts this really valuable article Angry put out. I think all of the helpful information Angry presents, particularly on improving the understanding of the distinction between Perception and Investigation, is really valuable.

          Lastly, and at the expense of watering down my earlier points–I think there’s room in the game for doing a sort of reverse check on “Passive Perception”. I’ve used it to good effect in my game. Some people will balk at the idea of more dice rolling–but essentially, for things that are “slightly hidden” or “less than obvious, but possibly discovered at a glance”–I roll a “Hidden object” check on the GM side of the screen, using the PCs Passive Perception as the DC. I even do this for inanimate objects. Magical pit trap? Maybe I roll with a +7, against the DC of whichever party member reasonably interacts with that area. I even roll these sorts of checks as part of my session prep, and mark the result in my notes. I do this mostly because I’ve never been a fan of comparing a Set Result (Passive Perception) against Set DCs (such as Perception DCs).

  5. To sum up: a good trap needs about as much forethought as an encounter, but done right could impart a similar feeling of accomplishment or at worst of having lost fairly.
    Doing a whole trap filed crypt would be a lot of prep, but adding in a few well designed traps would make for a more satisfying game than a whole lot of half assed ones.

  6. Personally, traps aren’t my thing. As a GM I should know better by now, but some things stick with you from being a player.

    Hell, one of the GMs I had was so trap heavy and so bad at it that many people simply stopped playing with him. Seriously, Spheres of Annihilation that expand to encompass the entire room? Against people who are just starting to play for the first time? And undetectable, gotta remember that. The guy was basically just measuring himself.

    SO…. now with this article, I will resolve to do better. Better than the ass-hat, and better than being a whiny bitch who thinks traps are evil.

    Well, traps are evil, but only if done badly. Thanks for the article.

  7. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen on traps came from you, Angry, in a earlier article—use foreshadowing to avoid the complete screw job. This here then takes that advice to the next level with advice for when the engagement occurs.

    • That’s one of my favourite articles too – it really made me rethink my approach to traps. Instead of just randomly throwing in pit traps and poison darts and all that – now I actually think about how those traps fit into the world and why and who built them. And dropping those subtle hints to the players about reoccurring traps is always fun.

    • This. I don’t think all traps suck, just how they are used badly by benighted DMs suck.
      So my new protocol for trap use should be:
      1. Has it been adequately foreshadowed? If not, fix that first.
      2. What sensory (perception) clues can be found by the DC?
      3. What DC for investigation to figure out the disarm/disable mechanics, if any?
      Considering the CLICK rule, the foreshadowing, and now the sensory clues means placing a trap takes work. But that’s just the work required in designing any quality encounter. Don’t be lazy, DM. Or your traps will suck.

      • Why would someone ever build a trap like that (Aside from the meta knowledge that people only ever go tomb-raiding in parties of four)?

        Even if you can afford the expense of filling the entire room with poisoned spears rather than just the square in front of the treasure chest, why would you leave the area around the treasure chest, the spot where you know for sure that a target is, untouched?

        • Only case I can think of is if you fear you might be taken hostage and forced to give up your treasure! “Don’t hurt me, the diamond is in that chest over there, but it’s trapped! Yes, yes, I’ll open it for you, just don’t chop off my fingers ’cause I’m going to need them…”

  8. Something I think is implicit in the article is that there is a benefit to having an idea of how the trap works when you set up the encounter. I mean, the actual mechanics can be a black box, but you should at least know the trigger and the delivery mechanism, each of which can be detected independently. Just be cause you find a pressure plate doesn’t mean you know what it triggers, and just because you spot holes in the wall (and surmise there may be darts) doesn’t mean you know how the trap is triggered.

    There is a nice series of posts on Hack & Slash that describe various traps and triggers, and the clues that indicate their existence. The hints tend to be obvious, but the conclusions to be drawn from them are not, which I think leads to traps that are fair and diabolical at the same time. http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.ca/2012/04/on-thursday-trick-detection-of-triggers.html

  9. I first read something similar to this in Traps and Treachery, an old 3E 3rd-party book. It was the only book that I remember actually giving details about how a rogue spots a trap (in the narrative) and also how the trap is disarmed. It was something I felt traps needed for a long time. I love the idea of differentiating components of the trap, and it finally gives me some use out of the investigation skill, which I haven’t used nearly enough as I should.

    I feel like most of the notion of “traps suck” in D&D comes from how the core rules have handled them. They exist essentially as a Baldur’s Gate style trap. You detect them and the trapped area glows red. Then you use your disarm skill and the trap is gone. There’s no real notion of what it is or how it works, or even where you have to be to disarm it. It’s just a black box with a detection DC and a disarm DC and nothing more. And that style is boring as hell, but it’s how they’ve always presented traps in the D&D core rules and I’d say it’s gotten worse as the editions have continued. 4E granted, had that weird phase where it used more of an encounter traps style, where traps were essentially meant to go off, and essentially set the stage for a skill-challenge, but for the most part, it’s always been Baldur’s Gate style.

    This article definitely presents a much better way of handling traps.

  10. I like that traps present another opportunity to share interesting information about the setting that can in turn help the party make informed decisions or advance the story in some way. What purpose does the trap serve? Is it guarding something precious, protecting an avenue of escape, punishing a transgression, etc.? Knowing something about what is trapped, how it’s trapped, and why it’s trapped can give the players better ideas about where they should search, when they should be wary, and give them that warm feeling when they notice the pattern and use it to their advantage. “Saaaay, all the arrow traps were in rooms with the diamond mosaics and THIS room has a diamond mosaic…be careful, guys!” “Why do these traps spray water all over the place…wait, what if it’s HOLY water? Who exactly are these traps meant to stop? What is going on here?” “Let’s use bait on the hidden spear traps to kill off some of these wandering monsters that keep interrupting our rests. I’m sick of those guys!” “Why would the trapmakers build these magic traps that cast protection from evil on people?” “What do you mean the scythe blades have been silvered? What’s the deal with that?”

    • Mister Anderson… that is one of the most outstandingly fiendish ideas I have seen all month. Hats off, sir.

  11. My problem with traps is that I personally don’t find them a good return on investment for time spent adventure planning. If I come up with a special creature my time is probably like:

    15 minutes of worldbuilding where I figure out where these creatures are and decide I need them
    15 minutes of creature mechanics where I figure out how they work
    15 minutes of worldbuilding where I figure out what secrets about the world I can use the creature to reveal

    And then my players are going to spend like an hour interacting with this creature, maybe much more (the magical spiders I just invented turned into a four hours of encounters because my players kept going back for more). That’s 45 minutes for an hour or more, pretty good return on investment. Plus it advanced my narrative a lot because a large part of that time was making sure the creatures built up the world.

    A trap on the other hand is going to be like:
    3 minutes figuring out where a trap could belong
    3 minutes deciding how it works
    10 minutes coming up with all the descriptions I need
    5 minutes deciding if there is a way I can worldbuild with the trap

    And then the players are going to interact with this trap for 5 minutes, maybe 10. That’s just not as good an investment. Now I’m sure that there are some other GMs out there who really grok traps and can do this stuff in 2 minutes instead of 18 but that’s not me. I suspect that for most GMs if they spend 2 minutes making a trap, it’s going to suck and be boring.

    • What is stopping you from re-using the hypothetical trap in future dungeons? why do you have to throw anything away after your players have interacted with it once? Why would you start from scratch every single time you design a trap? If your players are, say, on a quest for the lost dwarven doodad of hurbledurp, it would seem to follow a sort of internally consistent logic if the traps encountered were just variations on a baseline design. And who’s to say that most of the dwarves in most of the campaigns you run from now until the time that you stop running games work like this? I feel like GM’s could stand to take a lesson from “Makers” (people who get their creative on with more tangible materials eg. wood workers, prop makers, model makers, welders, ect) and keep everything. You go to just about any craftsman and they will be able to show you a surprisingly large stock of stuff that they can’t seem to get rid of, usually well organized, because they know the infinite value of re-use-ability.

  12. My biggest issue with traps as a DM is that I’m too stuck on trying to portray realistic objectives of the trap. Which is to say, I’m compelled to make traps that kill, maim, or demoralize. Fundamentally, the issue with designing traps in this way is that they don’t give the player any chance- but it is this very quality that makes them an effective trap. Traps, like war, aren’t supposed to be sporting.

    I want to include more traps, but I don’t want to make my game Vietnam: The RPG. While I think things like the “click” rule are a step towards adding more player agency, the reality is that any well-designed trap steals agency by its very nature. Either that or one is forced to fill their game with poorly designed traps, which to me makes the antagonists seem incompetent if used too often.

    • I agree that traps can feel very “The DM just wants to kill us” if executed poorly, or simply lead to a party who NEVER stops searching every two feet because one trap caught them off guard. Here’s some ideas I’ve used that I hope are helpful.
      1. The traps aren’t sporting, they’re just really old and wonky. The pressure plates are full of grit, so they don’t always go off instantly but make that loud click sound first, or get stuck down and don’t go off for a few moments. Old traps go off in a room randomly when characters fight out in the hallway, teaching them A) there are traps and B) they are unpredictably unsafe. Some traps have already been sprung, giving the party a good look at some “after action” to help them make good use of their time and search smarter, not ad nauseum. If the party finds a hallway with beartraps hanging on chains that fell out of the ceiling, then finding what set off that trap becomes the issue, and they’ll pay more attention for it later. All the tripwires rotted away, but the trap is still set; hitting the walls near the spearholes has a chance to make them shoot out, turning them into interesting bits of terrain while fighting monsters. One of my favorites: mechanical trap drops clay pots on the characters from above. Very little damage. Pots contain dozens of snake skeletons – not animated, just long dead. Looking carefully reveals a catwalk above the traps where the person who was supposed to feed the snakes can go, giving the party another route through an area.
      2. Traps that do something consistent with the values of those who built the place that aren’t all maim and kill. Example: Traps that trigger magic mouths that lecture about living right and not robbing tombs, or issue threats that might contain hints and other info perhaps regarding puzzles or places to look sharp. Maybe the traps redirect the group away from their goals without hurting them, by bewildering them with magic, hiding things with illusions or sliding panels and secret doors, etc. The trap summons a creature that lectures the party, or tests their purity/wits/alcohol tolerance, etc. Stone statues that simply grab offenders and will stop attacking if you go limp, giving other people time to figure out how to shut ’em down. A trap reveals a recess with an augury scroll and the wall is carved with the message “Ask if going forward is a good idea.”
      3. Traps that are earnestly trying to kill something other than the party so are not as lethal as they could be. Poisons deadly to the enemy but that are only nauseating to humans, elves, etc. Traps that trigger magic mouths taunting some specific person (who isn’t a party-member) with incredibly hurtful insults or making weird threats; who were these people and what’s their beef? Maybe instead the voice screeches earnestly in some unknown language, but the characters catch a clear word or a name.Traps that try to exploit vulnerabilities the characters don’t have (sunlight bombs for vampires, cold iron caltrops) but still do a little damage or attract enemies.
      4. Finally, traps designed to destroy the dungeon or block progress that the party needs to thwart or circumvent somehow. Deadfalls that crush but also block hallways or cause cave ins. Areas flood with water or gas and have to be drained. Traps that release dangerous monsters (by the way, finding the self-destruct mechanism for the caged undead feels awesome!) The treasury has a tilting floor that dumps the wealth down a narrow drain; where did it go and how do we get to it now? When characters find ways around these obstacles, they again feel smart and you can reward clever play.

      I hope some of these ideas helped, or sparked another!

    • Something to consider (as mentioned in the other reply to this) is who the traps were built for.

      Consider that the traps were built to keep out goblins. Goblins are not very hardy, only have a few HP. So why would you design a trap that has the potential to do 10d8 damage?

      My point is that the traps can be made to kill. Just not to kill PC’s, as they may have more HP than the intended targets.

      Wanna build a trap to keep out humanoid Tomb raiders? Who built Tomb? If it was a lowly noblemen the traps would probably kill most average humans (who have like 6 hp tops), while if it was a king he can probably afford to have multiple magical traps that would keep out higher level wizards or thieves.

      So you always make the traps deadly. Just remember that in D&D a creature’s experience with dangerous activities is partially measured by their hp.

      I mean, you’d think those goblins would have weapons that could actually kill too…

    • The reduced effectiveness of traps could probably warrant another article entirely. I feel like you’re almost forced to have your NPCs metagame a bit when designing traps, at least assuming those traps are designed to be a legitimate threat to mid to high level characters. What I mean is the villain has to know that experienced characters are basically superheroes, and a 20 ft fall into a spiked pit is something they’ll shrug off without breaking a stride. You’re no longer trying to kill a human, you’re trying to kill Superman or Wolverine. You kind of have to treat it more like a comic book trap and design it with gratuitous amounts of overkill, as well as linking it with actual combat encounters.

      That still doesn’t necessarily mean it instant kills the PCs, but you could have several phases of traps, like a pit trap that drops a PC down, and then seals the pit above so he can’t get any help, and then the pit starts to fill with boiling oil to roast him alive. It’s even better if the villains minions decide to attack the PCs up above after the trap is sprung (maybe they were waiting inside a secret door). So it becomes a race against time to get the PC out before he boils alive.

  13. I think that part of the reason that people wargle about traps sucking is because traps are secretly four different things that D&D squeezes into the same rules set:
    1: setpiece traps (rooms that fill with water or lower the ceiling, hallways where you get chased by a boulder)
    2: Combat traps (scything blades that strike specific squares every other turn or rotating ballistas that fire in a clock pattern and you’re supposed to maneuver around them as you fight)
    3: Object traps (where there’s an object that anyone with half a brain can tell will do *something*, but it’s not obvious said thing will be bad; i.e. a statue that is clearly glowing and flamethrowers you if you stand in front of it too long)
    4: Hidden traps (mostly what you’re describing, where there’s a hidden pressure plate/tripwire ideally with context clues that kicks you in the crotch if you trigger it).

    Thus far, almost every single complaint about traps that I’ve read has been complaining about 4 or occasionally 3, but then people leap in to defend the virtues of 2 or talk about how iconic a 1 is. Admittedly, clever PCs can slip across these categories and make any trap a combat trap, but grouping them all together does a great disservice, especially since it forces big fancy setpieces into the confines of traps that are clearly designed to be one-and-done pokes, as well as tricking novice DMs into letting people break through their carefully made puzzle boxes that sometimes zap you or rolling boulder hallways by using Disable Device on it (it’s a trap, after all, and they provided a decent enough explanation about jamming the path or ducking aside, so if I tell them that this was supposed to be a whole encounter rather than a single skill check I’m railroading right?).

  14. Since the twitter discussion and after reading this article, I eased up to the idea of rolling separately for deduction on how the trap works. Maybe partially because now I am reminded that it is okay if traps don’t go off and they are not only for rogues.
    Together with the other articles on traps (Pedanticus already linked to them) I am now really inspired to use them in games.

  15. Detailing the trap scene is great but I would have liked an example with the various possible outcomes and and examples of the kinds of descriptions and how they differ between the perception check and investigation check.

    What kind of risk or trade off should there be for a perception or investigation check?

  16. The adventure I’m running in 5e has a deadly high-stealth stalker. It is hunting the PC’s in the dungeon. Trust me, the adventure is unique and has many redeeming factors. Still, I’m struggling on how to run the stalker an keep it fun.

    Your writing on traps convinced me that I’ll probably have to treat the stalker as a mobile trap. If I understand your advice correctly, this implies I should come up with consistent hints that I could drop to players before the attack so they could learn its behavior and take evasive action. Only after they have learned to understand the warning signs can I use the stalker in conjunction with other elements of the dungeon to create the actual challenge. It’s tricky.

  17. Pingback: In Review: August 13, 2017 – Jon Bupp

Comments are closed.