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Traps: What Should Become of the Spike-Filled Pit?

Felon

First Post
There are some sticky issues with traps that have made their usage fairly awkward and often moot in both 3e and 4e. Some folks think they're downright passé. I'd like to go over the major issues and see if any kind of meaningful discussion is sparked.

1) One-Hit Cheap-Shot Nature: While there is the occasional complex trap, like the gas-filled room or wall-closing-in traps, most are just single-shot attacks. Their threat is over as soon as they've begun. This is in contrast to D&D combat, which offers a lot of give-and-take. A player may fall in battle, but at least there's an exchange of blows. A one-hit trap, OTOH, offers nothing a player can push back against.

There's a big question as to how deadly a one-shot trap should be. If a scythe blade or poison dart is proportionately nasty to a monster's attack--say, a hit from a giant's sword or a snake bite--then it isn't likely that the trap will do anything meaningful. The characters just burn up a CLW wand charge or spend a healing surge. They're tedious inconveniences.

OTOH, if traps were so potent as to kill instantly, then characters can die from a single misstep. The inevitable result is characters being so paranoid about traps that they creep along prodding every cobblestone with a ten-foot pole. Characters simply aren't the disposable commodities they were in the old days. Even DM's may find trap-induced death undesirable due to the unceremonious, impersonal, and "cheap" nature.

2) Questionable Role: While some traps bring problem-solving skills to bear, many traps in published adventures are presented as utterly nondescript. 3e in particular loved to slap simple glyph traps on things willy-nilly. Basically, your only recourse agains them is use the official skillset for finding and disarming them.

The end result is that it often seems that the only reason a trap exists is to validate the existence of anti-trap character abilities. It's a pretty incestuous relationship; the anti-trapster is wasting her life if traps aren't laid in her path, but fi they are laid in her path then they routinely get found and negated.

So, has the spike-filled pit in the middle of the hallway outlived its heyday?
 

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I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
Felon said:
So, has the spike-filled pit in the middle of the hallway outlived its heyday?

In my mind, traps are the "monsters" of exploration.

They are there to consume resources and, as a whole, lead to the party's destruction.

A simple way to embody this is in something like a 4e skill challenge: you make rolls to explore the dungeon, and, if your roll fails, your character stumbles into a trap and suffers some penalty...lets say, he dies. And in order to get raised, you need to get out of the dungeon (e.g.: quit, fail, and walk home empty-handed without treasure or XP or whatever goal you wanted to accomplish here). So a trap-filled dungeon gradually whittles down the party to 0 members, or at least one party member manages to overcome all the traps, get the MacGuffin, and get back to town in time to raise those who weren't so lucky.

That paragraph is more of a proof-of-concept than a rigorous mechanical framework, but that's the idea.

IMO, that's also the idea behind rust monsters, ear seekers, disenchanters, and other "gotcha monsters." They're not there to fight, they're there to make the exploration of the dungeon more interesting, to whittle away the character's resources, and to eventually, in total effect, to thwart a party from completing their mission.

And as to the question of deadliness: IMO, it needs to suck away something that cannot be earned back (unless perhaps one admits to failure). 3e and 4e don't really have such a resource -- maybe GP, but it just seems odd to have a spike-filled pit ultimately just drain your wallet (even via a raise spell, or something).

That's part of why I think traps have trouble working in that environment. It's not helpless, though, you just need to re-contextualize the environment.

For 5e, I would like to see all sorts of traps and trap-creatures and hazards, but I would give the DM a few different ways to introduce them, depending on how they want to handle dungeon exploration, from very abstract (like my proof-of-concept) to very detailed (more like AD&D), and always with the recommendation that whatever the trap does to the PC's, it isn't something the party should be able to undo without some sort of cost (narratively, financially, etc.).
 


Hassassin

First Post
Good traps in my opinion are things that have the potential to affect longer term game. Curses rather than damage, pits and cave-ins that mean you have to find another way forward, alarm traps that call in two groups of monsters you would have met individually, etc.
 

Kingreaper

Adventurer
In 4e, imo, out-of-combat traps are best when they interact with the Disease subsystem. Or are treated as part of a skill challenge.

Personally, I have a set of custom diseases that I really like, including, for pit traps:

Cracked Leg.

Progression essentially goes
Fine<- -1 to speed, can't run <-> slowed, can't run, -5 to all athletics checks -> Slowed, can't run, can't shift -10 to all athletics checks.

How do you contract Cracked Leg? Fall into a pit trip. Or get hit by a Knee-Smasher Dwarf while prone, etc.
 
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tlantl

First Post
Traps serve as a type of monster that doesn't need food or water. Long deserted tombs might not have anything big and dangerous living in them but the traps left behind serve to deter the casual explorer or weaken the more persistent. There is no way in my mind that traps are passe.
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
Traps serve as a type of monster that doesn't need food or water. Long deserted tombs might not have anything big and dangerous living in them but the traps left behind serve to deter the casual explorer or weaken the more persistent. There is no way in my mind that traps are passe.

Agreed, 100% agreed. I like traps, but don't use them enough. I think they are a type of terrain that attacks, and I'm good with that. It can be used to slow them down, to provide them with a skill challenge to get out of a trap, or to avoid one. I like the versatility of traps and the different ways they can be overcome.
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
Traps are problematic in several ways. They presume the existence of something to be trapped, which applies only during dungeoncrawling and a small number of other scenarios. They encourge players to simply stop and rest after taking harm. They're hard to balance because of that, because they either kill you or they don't. Honestly, I've run several campaigns and only ever used them a couple of times, with modestly fun results at best.

Then again, they're a classic element, and can be really flavorful if done right and mechanically interesting if presented in a very sophisticated way. They can require more creativity than monsters.

Honestly, I'd be happy to see a 5e Dungeonscape or the like. Relegate traps to a book for those that specialize in dungeoncrawling, and then trick them out (like the 'encounter traps' and really get them right.

I'd also like to see puzzles/riddles emphasized more in that setting, which kind of dovetails with traps.
 

Felon

First Post
Great replies. Let me run something past you. Pick the answer you prefer most. Ideally, a trap is a challenge that the party...

A) ...finds and disarms using standard skills checks.

B) ...finds but can't disarm, and have to devise how exactly to mitigate its harmful effects.

C) ...doesn't find, catches the party off-guard, and inflicts its harmful effect in full.
 
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Zaukrie

New Publisher
Great replies. Let me run something past you. Pick the answer you prefer most. Ideally, a trap is a challenge that the party...

A) ...finds and disarms using standard skills.

B) ...finds but can't disarm, and have to figure out how to mitigate its harmful effects.

C) ...doesn't find, catches the party off-guard, and inflicts its harmful effect in full.

False choice to me....that's what I like about traps, that they can be used all three ways.
 

Reynard

Legend
I killed a PC on new years eve day playing B/X with a spike filled pit trap. It was glorious. The player had been gaming for 25 years. Characters were created and geared up for the expedition. The PCs came to the dungeon and opened the door. The dwarf strode forward into the darkness, and 10' in fell to his death on goblin sticks.

After all this time, it still works. Of course we still need the spike filled pit.

As to the problem of paranoia: the party literally stopped play, went back to town, bought a 10' pole and added "we tap the floor with the pole" to their travel SOP. It took 3 minutes -- AND it had the added benefit of the party constantly announcing their presence to the dungeon by tap-tap-tapping their way through the halls.
 

Jack7

First Post
You know traps can always be tied to other things. Such as alarms. A trap goes off and triggers an alarm and just as the players are disengaging themselves from the trap the monster who set it shows up, or the NPCs who set it show up.

Traps can be tied to other traps in complex or even seemingly invisible or magical ways.

Suppose you fall into a 10' trap onto spikes. You take damage. Then as you're climbing out the spikes transform into venomous serpents, all 20 spikes.

A part of the ceiling collapses blocking one area and forcing the party to go forward by another route which is simply a bottleneck extension of the same trap leading to a prepared ambush in a corridor which negates many of the player's advantages. A well designed trap can be a near perfect ambush distraction or prelude to an ambush.

Suppose you're traveling with NPCs you assume you can trust but who have set traps or know of traps they wish to lead the party into? They're led into a killbox?

Suppose a trap is used by monsters or NPCs to split or separate the party into smaller, more manageable, more killable units? Suppose you want to separate out one or a few party members so that they can be captured for interrogation? For torture? Maybe just to steal what he has? That's exactly how I'd use a trap. As a tool to achieve a greater end or purpose. Just because the trap is inanimate doesn't mean the intelligence or will that set or devised it is. So traps can be far more than seemingly motiveless enterprises. They can have far more than just a single purpose or exist for far greater reasons than just kill or damage.

If you think about traps less in the sense of what kind of damage they do, or don't do, and instead think far more about them as devices designed to achieve the specific purposes or objectives of those who set the trap, or even think of them as a hunter or soldier might, then traps are limited in effect only by how imaginatively they are designed and used.

They can be extremely effective tools set to achieve a number of different, or maybe even multiple, ends. Even the simplest of traps. Depends on who set them and with what intent.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I concur with Kamakazie, but traps also have other uses as well...

1) To direct the party's route. In some cases traps can be placed to deter or delay parties from going through a certain area. It can even force them to confront another challenge first to find a way through - either by collecting information, materials or disarming the trap from another area.

2) To delay. In a sense, time can be a resource for a party. If the adventure is time-sensitive, then getting through the trap becomes a direct obstacle against completing the adventure in time . In other cases, the time involved dealing with a trap can be meant to frustrate the adventurer's advancement through a complex.

For me, the best example of traps is the opening part of Raiders. It's even got a pit trap in it. And the best part of it is how the dynamics of how Indy deals with the pit trap changes on the way back out.
 

KarinsDad

First Post
I had a 20 foot deep pit trap as a protection outside the lair of some cultists. A second level PC fell into it, set off an alarm, couldn't climb out (and didn't have teleport) and the rest of the PCs had to lure the cultists near the pit so that the trapped PC could use ranged attacks and help out (it was such a challenging encounter that other PCs really didn't have time to drop a rope, the cultist guards were on them immediately and a lot of other powerful cultists showed up in the second round).

I've found that a 35 foot deep pit trap is just the right height for mid-level heroic PCs to fall into. They typically cannot teleport out and it takes more than a single round to climb out (unless they are successful with fast climb). For higher levels, spikes at the bottom (and/or additional height) work well.


But, traps should be used judiciously and they should have a reason for their existence.


One of the best traps I've ever seen were located inside a corridor leading into a room. As some of the PCs entered the room, the traps fired off, pinning (and damaging) some PCs to the corridor wall. It partially split up the party since melee PCs trapped couldn't help set up lines and such, and the foes could arrange themselves in the room where some of the trapped ranged PCs couldn't target them back.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
But, traps should be used judiciously and they should have a reason for their existence.

I agree completely. For me it's one of their top requirements. There's nothing as boring and frustrating as a trap placed in the middle of nowhere for no reason.

I don't really think traps are "passé", I think they are very much a signature feature of D&D and can be memorable and cool if thought-out properly, but it's definitely easier to design a good combat than a good trap.

I second those who think that a stand-alone trap which delivers only immediate damage is not cool, it ends being a minor nuisance (a wasted cure wounds spell or potion, probably). If you use such traps, you should probably add something around it, such as the spike pit noise alerting monsters so that they attack the party before those in the pit has been taken out. Even just using a self-reloading trap instead of a one-shot can be an improvement enough sometimes, for example if the trap is blocking a convenient passage or hidden treasure that cannot be reached without disarming the trap first.

Otherwise it might be better to use traps that give long-lasting penalties or even getting worse. Poison would be an obvious choice, but it's a pity that poison rules are usually designed for coating weapons and therefore have short-time effects instead of long-time effects.

Also good to keep in mind that there exist traps not designed to kill or damage. A net/cage type trap that causes no damage but could mean to be captured for example.
 
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mmadsen

First Post
One-Hit Cheap-Shot Nature: While there is the occasional complex trap, like the gas-filled room or wall-closing-in traps, most are just single-shot attacks. Their threat is over as soon as they've begun. This is in contrast to D&D combat, which offers a lot of give-and-take. A player may fall in battle, but at least there's an exchange of blows. A one-hit trap, OTOH, offers nothing a player can push back against.
Yes, a "good" trap gives the players something to interact with. First, they should be able to note clues that they're walking into a trap -- it shouldn't just be random -- and, second, the trap should leave them with a challenge -- getting out of a deep pit, escaping the automaton that's been activated, etc.

There's a big question as to how deadly a one-shot trap should be. If a scythe blade or poison dart is proportionately nasty to a monster's attack--say, a hit from a giant's sword or a snake bite--then it isn't likely that the trap will do anything meaningful. The characters just burn up a CLW wand charge or spend a healing surge. They're tedious inconveniences.
This problem is exacerbated by D&D's buffer of hit points combined with easy healing. Also, modern D&D lacks "red shirts" to absorb random threats. Someone should die; it just shouldn't be our heroes.
 

IMO traps (and tricks, and puzzles) are critical because they represent "skill obstacles" that can be overcome through either player ability or character skills. They're hard to design, though, and to be viable there should be enough of a skill system in the game that they represent a reasonable challenge without the use of combat abilities. And to be effective they have to be more than just: fall in a pit, take 1d6 damage, repair with wand, climb out.

Traps *can* and occasionally should be encounters in their own right; they also can and should be combined with combat encounters as part of the environment. More complex traps fit the former, pit traps and the like work better as the latter IMO.
 

DonTadow

First Post
I like where Kamikaze was going, where traps are not indivifdually encountered, but countered and treated as random encounters.

As am atter of fact, i like the idea of using only traps and hazards as random encounters, thus speeding up dungeon exploration and taking away none of the danger.

Specific trap locations that are either important to an adventure location, item or area should still be used but sparingly,.

Also, in an effort to make no class "neccessary" I like the idea of having very every trap have a perception check, a disable device check and a slightly more difficult but well within reason other ability check to avoid.
 

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