D&D 5E Turning a boring trap into an exciting encounter.

Saeviomagy

Adventurer
No, I think the ideal trap is one that creates suspense, and a fun story, while also providing the players with important choices. Resources are irrelevant in my opinion.

If the players run into a trap, and there's a tense scene where they try to disable it and yet they come out completely unscathed, then that is fine. There was excitement, and their clever thinking prevailed.
The problem is that a trap which can be bypassed while consuming no resources is kind of like an encounter with a single kobold. Unless it's setting up something later on, it's kind of a non event. You don't tend to fill your dungeons with trivial combats that serve no purpose. Save the time and build some fun traps.
 

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Kabouter Games

Explorer
No, I think the ideal trap is one that creates suspense, and a fun story, while also providing the players with important choices. Resources are irrelevant in my opinion.

I agree, except with the last bit. Choices are irrelevant, and suspense impossible, unless something is at stake. Resources - healing potions, yadda yadda yadda - are an excellent stake.

But what does matter, is how they can interact with the trap. Once they find the trap, what happens next?

Now we're going off the rails.

Often a player will say "I disable the trap!", but most DM's then simply ask for a roll, instead of asking "How do you disable the trap?". It all comes down to storytelling in my opinion. If the player just rolls to disable the trap, then all suspense is gone. The success relies on a random outcome, rather than an important informed choice.

But if the DM asks the player how he will attempt to disable the trap, the outcome is now uncertain, and there for there is suspense. Depending on how the player chooses to go about disabling the trap, it may still require a dice roll, if the DM feels the outcome is uncertain.

I see this attitude all the time here, and I couldn't disagree more strongly.

You don't demand a fighter describe in detail the techniques she uses when she's trying to hit. You don't give her better chances to hit - or worse, hit automatically - depending on how engagingly or creatively she describes her action. Nope. The player says, "I attack the creature with my axe," and rolls a d20. In this instance the suspense comes from the place where the outcome is determined by a random die roll against a CR.

If I as a DM decide the outcome is certain, I actually cheat the players out of suspense, except insofar as them waiting for me to arbitrarily decide if their metagaming is good enough to wave off the random determination. A DM's arbitrary decision whether or not the player's narrative was sufficiently engaging is also suspense, but the situations are not mutually exclusive, neither is devoid of suspense, and neither is devoid of meaning.

I'll give players a bonus for creative narrative interaction with the world. That's what Advantage is FOR. But there's a die roll involved, A., because die rolling is how you determine outcome in D&D; and B., because it's the only fair.

Many people ask, "Well, what happens when you describe a great plan then roll a 1?" What happens? Suckage. Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth. But you know something? The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, as the poet says. In less Scots terms, "feces occurs." That's why it's suspenseful! You can plan the invasion of Normandy to a fare-thee-well, but all it takes is one German sentry to be extra awake on Pegasus Bridge and it all comes unglued and suddenly you're trying to swim back to Devon.

Here's an excellent example: There once was a fellow searching an ancient dungeon. He came upon a shiny golden monkey statue. He carefully searched for traps and triggers and didn't appear to find any. Just in case there was a pressure plate under the statue, he filled a pouch with sand to approximately the same weight as the statue, then quickly swapped bag for statue. There was an ominous "click," the pressure plate sank into the pedestal, and the giant stone ball rolled down a ramp. Hilarity ensued.

In game terms, Indy's player described what he was doing and where he was searching, and the Investigation roll made him think there were no traps. Just in case, because DMs are evil and any idiot will know there's a pressure plate under the "OOOCOMETAKEME" golden monkey statue, he came up with a plan (the sandbag). Alas, he still rolled below the CR needed to disable the trap, so the trap was sprung.

Dig me?

It's also important to keep in mind that traps work well when coordinated correctly. There is no set rule that the trap has to be sprung right when you walk into it. What if the orc lair had spike traps that only activated after an ambush was sprung just in passed them to cut off maneuver and/or escape? Put another one right next to that handy-dandy pile of crates and barrels that intruders will likely maneuver to for cover from your crossbow ambush.

Always keep in mind that even Orcs have better things to do than get dead and will be as mean and nasty about keeping up the whole breathing thing as any adventurer...

This is something I touch on in con panels. Too many GMs treat encounters as number pools - pools of HP for the PCs to take away, and pools of HP to take away from the PCs. The die rolls only determine where the numbers go. That's a very dissatisfying approach.

Intelligent creatures are just that - intelligent. If you treat your monsters and encounters as numerical entities (even though they really are, SHHH!), you do your game a disservice.

The problem is that a trap which can be bypassed while consuming no resources is kind of like an encounter with a single kobold. Unless it's setting up something later on, it's kind of a non event. You don't tend to fill your dungeons with trivial combats that serve no purpose. Save the time and build some fun traps.

Traps are awesome. Traps are fun. Traps make sense in terms of intelligent foes. Traps are an intelligent foe who isn't even there. He could be dead these past thousand years. But when the players pinch that golden monkey, his treasure is still protected.
 

Mostly good, but I think it falls into a typical bad assumption about traps: that they are only 'succeeded' at by totally bypassing them with zero resource consumption, and therefore the main design decision of a trap is to work out how to reveal it to the players without it hurting them.

We don't treat combat that way: typically adventurers don't expect to see combat coming from sufficiently far off that they can totally negate it's impact upon them, and once they engage in it, they expect to consume resources. In fact, the more resources it consumes, the more heroic they feel when they succeed.

The ideal trap is one that consumes resources and makes the party work together to resolve. That resolution does not necessarily mean the trap is disabled: merely that it didn't kill the party or stop their progress towards a goal.


No, I think the ideal trap is one that creates suspense, and a fun story, while also providing the players with important choices. Resources are irrelevant in my opinion.

If the players run into a trap, and there's a tense scene where they try to disable it and yet they come out completely unscathed, then that is fine. There was excitement, and their clever thinking prevailed.

But what does matter, is how they can interact with the trap. If it simply requires one dice roll, then that is not very engaging. Take Iserith's trap for example: There's a hint of a trap, in the form of an arrow, but the players must figure out where the arrow came from to find the trap. Once they find the trap, what happens next?

Often a player will say "I disable the trap!", but most DM's then simply ask for a roll, instead of asking "How do you disable the trap?". It all comes down to storytelling in my opinion. If the player just rolls to disable the trap, then all suspense is gone. The success relies on a random outcome, rather than an important informed choice.

But if the DM asks the player how he will attempt to disable the trap, the outcome is now uncertain, and there for there is suspense. Depending on how the player chooses to go about disabling the trap, it may still require a dice roll, if the DM feels the outcome is uncertain. But the key to designing a good trap, is making it exciting, and providing options.

There is enough variety in design space to to include both of these approaches and more. Why do all traps have to follow a single convention? Interaction and combat encounters have many approaches. There is no reason for traps to have be so narrowly defined.

Not all traps need to consume resources to be interesting. In combat there are tactics that can be employed to help conserve resource use. It is the same with traps. Multiple ways of handling things with the more clever solutions costing less, is the essential method for rewarding creative thinking.

Lets say we have an old tried and true trip wire trap linked to a heavy barbed net which falls when triggered. The trip wire might be quite easily visible to sharp-eyed scouts. The party has a simple decision to make if they discover it. Carefully step over the wire, or use their 10' pole to trigger the thing clearing the passage. What if the real trap isn't the net? Suppose the net was attached to a line that connected to a guard room, and it vibrated acting as a silent alarm when the net was dropped?

Now the decision about how to handle the obvious trap becomes interesting even though dealing with it won't consume resources.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Mostly good, but I think it falls into a typical bad assumption about traps: that they are only 'succeeded' at by totally bypassing them with zero resource consumption, and therefore the main design decision of a trap is to work out how to reveal it to the players without it hurting them.

We don't treat combat that way: typically adventurers don't expect to see combat coming from sufficiently far off that they can totally negate it's impact upon them, and once they engage in it, they expect to consume resources. In fact, the more resources it consumes, the more heroic they feel when they succeed.

The ideal trap is one that consumes resources and makes the party work together to resolve. That resolution does not necessarily mean the trap is disabled: merely that it didn't kill the party or stop their progress towards a goal.

I don't think a trap needs to consume resources (outside of time, perhaps) to be considered well-designed. Resources simply need to be at stake in order to create the basis for the challenge and the opportunity for suspense. If the players, by carefully paying attention to the DM's description and deliberate engagement with the environment, manage to disable or bypass the trap with no resource expenditure, then good on them for being awesome.

The same goes for combat, really. I would submit that players can feel just as good about utterly defeating an opponent through clever strategy and tactics with no resource expenditure as coming out of the fight broken and bloody.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The problem is that a trap which can be bypassed while consuming no resources is kind of like an encounter with a single kobold. Unless it's setting up something later on, it's kind of a non event. You don't tend to fill your dungeons with trivial combats that serve no purpose. Save the time and build some fun traps.

I disagree unless you're referring to a trap that requires no critical thinking or effort (not necessarily resources, except perhaps time) to bypass. A trap that the players can make solid decisions to bypass is equivalent to a fight they can also bypass by the same means.

A single kobold or a trap is a challenge in that there is something for the PCs to win or lose. The difficulty is how much it costs them and this depends, in part, on the kinds of decisions the players make which can increase or decrease the difficulty of the challenge.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I see this attitude all the time here, and I couldn't disagree more strongly.

You don't demand a fighter describe in detail the techniques she uses when she's trying to hit. You don't give her better chances to hit - or worse, hit automatically - depending on how engagingly or creatively she describes her action. Nope. The player says, "I attack the creature with my axe," and rolls a d20. In this instance the suspense comes from the place where the outcome is determined by a random die roll against a CR.

I would say the DM can and should give a character a better chance to hit (or worse), depending on the player's description. It's not about the level of detail or how engaging it is, but rather the goal and approach relative to the situation. The advantage or disadvantage mechanic is great for this purpose. Take a risk to get behind the hobgoblin shield-wall, for example, and I'm inclined to give you advantage on your attack if you succeed. The player has carefully considered the description of the environment and done something in the fiction to try and better his or her character's chances of success. The same goes for trying to bypass or disable a trap. The "how" of doing a thing should be among the DM's considerations when adjudicating the result in my view.

If I as a DM decide the outcome is certain, I actually cheat the players out of suspense, except insofar as them waiting for me to arbitrarily decide if their metagaming is good enough to wave off the random determination. A DM's arbitrary decision whether or not the player's narrative was sufficiently engaging is also suspense, but the situations are not mutually exclusive, neither is devoid of suspense, and neither is devoid of meaning.

I'll give players a bonus for creative narrative interaction with the world. That's what Advantage is FOR. But there's a die roll involved, A., because die rolling is how you determine outcome in D&D; and B., because it's the only fair.

Many people ask, "Well, what happens when you describe a great plan then roll a 1?" What happens? Suckage. Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth. But you know something? The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, as the poet says. In less Scots terms, "feces occurs." That's why it's suspenseful! You can plan the invasion of Normandy to a fare-thee-well, but all it takes is one German sentry to be extra awake on Pegasus Bridge and it all comes unglued and suddenly you're trying to swim back to Devon.

I think what happens is what the DMG warns against when using an approach where the DM calls for a roll for just about anything a PC does: "A drawback of this approach is that roleplaying can diminish if players feel that their die rolls, rather than their decisions and characterizations, always determine success." (DMG, page 236)

I prefer the "middle path."
 

I tend to base the difficulty DC of disarming the trap, on the approach of the player. Take a simple arrow trap for example. If the player decides to spring the trap with a long stick from a safe distance, then it succeeds, no roll needed.

If the player wants to jam the mechanism, then that requires a roll. The trap could spring while the player is plugging up the holes, and he may have missed a hole or two. I would set the DC to about 15, since it is reasonable.

If the player wants to try and disarm the trap with his tools, while the trap is pretty much concealed in the wall, then that is a lot harder. A DC of 18 would be reasonable perhaps.

Now suppose the player is a bit less subtle about it. What if he tries to break the wall, to access the trap mechanism? That sort of violence could easily trigger the trap, so I would set the DC to about 20.

The end result of this approach, is that the outcome isn't entirely random. The strategy of the players matters, and clever thinking is rewarded. It also brings the scene to life, and encourages better scene framing, because the players get a good idea of what the trap looks like as they ask for more information.
 

Kabouter Games

Explorer
I would say the DM can and should give a character a better chance to hit (or worse), depending on the player's description. It's not about the level of detail or how engaging it is, but rather the goal and approach relative to the situation. The advantage or disadvantage mechanic is great for this purpose. Take a risk to get behind the hobgoblin shield-wall, for example, and I'm inclined to give you advantage on your attack if you succeed. The player has carefully considered the description of the environment and done something in the fiction to try and better his or her character's chances of success. The same goes for trying to bypass or disable a trap. The "how" of doing a thing should be among the DM's considerations when adjudicating the result in my view.

The trouble here is two-fold: First, the purpose of the die rolls is to obviate a requirement for narrative detail. Second, the descriptive method works for some die rolls and not for others, making it inherently unfair. Third, rewarding some players for narrative unfairly penalizes other players.

First, as I recall - and I'm operating on decades of memory here, informed by GGG, countless Sage Advice columns and other sources - the die rolls are supposed to be a shorthand. "I check for traps" and rolling dice is supposed to represent detail which the player - not necessarily the character, but the player - probably doesn't know. "I check for traps" and rolling dice is shorthand for stuff the player's rogue knows to do, like "I run my fingers gently along the base of the monkey statue, attempting to determine if the platform has a specific kind of trap." The player is not a skilled thief. How the heck should she know what to do?

In just the same way, "I attack with my bastard sword" and rolling dice represents "As I transition my longsword through mezza volta from porta di ferro mezana to posta frontale ditta corona, I seek an opportunity to bind under the orc's guard and offer a sottano to his midriff." Here you're rewarding a player for knowing the Fior di Battaglia of Fiore dei Liberi. Even if she just says, "I feint to the orc's face before dropping the point to his midriff," you're still rewarding the player. How many players do you think know how to use medieval weapons? I mean for real? I know maybe a dozen gamers who are proficient enough in WMA to offer a plausible detailed narrative of a fight.

As a final example, "I cast fireball" and rolling dice represents "As I mash together the guano and sulfur in my left hand, I form the Sigil of Hendricks with my right, drawing it over and across the third chakram, as my master taught, before flinging the raw magic at my foe." While, unlike the combat sequence, there's nothing which can be called realistic or not in this, it still unfairly rewards the player who is good at inventing plausible explanations of the V,S,M requirements of the spell.

This is to illustrate that you are rewarding the player for out-of-game mastery of knowledge or creative talent, not the PC for in-game actions. On the one hand, I like that, because it rewards players who dig further in to that of which their characters are capable, and it adds to the narrative of the table. On the other, I loathe it, because it unfairly penalizes those who don't want to do that, or can't for some reason, or are new to the game.

I think what happens is what the DMG warns against when using an approach where the DM calls for a roll for just about anything a PC does: "A drawback of this approach is that roleplaying can diminish if players feel that their die rolls, rather than their decisions and characterizations, always determine success." (DMG, page 236)

I prefer the "middle path."

Oh, me too. It's a bit of a poser, this. I don't think there's a good answer, other than discussing the possibility of check die-mechanic modification based on player knowledge and narrative addition when expectations are under discussion before character generation. If everyone agrees that it's okay for only a few players to receive in-game benefit from out-of-game creativity and/or knowledge, I think it's fine to do that.

To opine that simple checks are less than worthy, as the OP did, reeks rather strongly of BadWrongFun.
 

DMSage

First Post
Thanks for the feedback. Very thorough. I keep providing examples of how bad DMs run things to contrast with what I'm suggesting In my article, but people keep pointing those out saying im a bad DM. Haha. Maybe I need to make that clear that that is exactly what I'm saying and the examples are bad DMs.

I have 3 issues with your suggestion on how players can find traps. For the most part I love it. That's fun stuff to happen in a game.

1) We pretty much agree on the giving clues point. As I said in the article, you start by giving a clues about the trap itself, but then make them more difficult by taking away clues and perhaps leaving only clues about it's location based on the environment.

2) If you leave the finding of the trap entirely up to the players, you have to take into account the game aspect of D&D. A player wanting to "win", will be searching for traps all the time. If you have a huge dungeon map. This can add two hours to your game of just trap searching. While it is slightly less realistic to make sure they always have clues about traps, it can give you back hours of needless trap searching. If you can handle the trap searching really quickly as a DM and move it along, then it's not as big of a deal. (it sounds like you can handle this so it's not as much of a worry in your game. But most DMs are slower)

3) People keep referring to traps in real life having no clues so it's not realistic. Most give the example of a mine field. While this is true, most traps in D&D are in inhabited dungeons. This means that the people who walk in and out of the dungeon every day, have to walk over the trap. Then the DM throws in a trip wire trap at the entrance. It makes no sense. How would the people get in and out without accidentally killing themselves every day. If there are people who use the traps location, then there are clues for the trap. A keyhole in the wall that turns it off, a path of footprints where they carefully walk around it, a place where the trap has already been triggered by a careless adventurer.
 

DMSage

First Post
Mostly good, but I think it falls into a typical bad assumption about traps: that they are only 'succeeded' at by totally bypassing them with zero resource consumption, and therefore the main design decision of a trap is to work out how to reveal it to the players without it hurting them.

We don't treat combat that way: typically adventurers don't expect to see combat coming from sufficiently far off that they can totally negate it's impact upon them, and once they engage in it, they expect to consume resources. In fact, the more resources it consumes, the more heroic they feel when they succeed.

The ideal trap is one that consumes resources and makes the party work together to resolve. That resolution does not necessarily mean the trap is disabled: merely that it didn't kill the party or stop their progress towards a goal.

Unfortunately it is not an assumption about traps. This is from Hoard of the Dragon Queen module.
Trap #1, collapsing stairs= perceive it, avoid it.
Trap #2, Barbed curtain =perceive it, avoid it.
Trap #3, collapsing ceiling = perceive it, avoid it.

and so on.

Many of the traps in the module are either perceive and avoid, or they don't have another way to dissarm them besides roll a "remove all trap" check. Of course a good DM shouldn't run them this way and can add in extra features to each trap to make it more interactive. But that is assuming the DM already thinks like the article suggests.

Point is, Most DMs dont run traps this way, and most traps put out officially in published materials don't suggest running them this way. So the article is to address that issue.
If you already convert traps into interactive and interesting encounters, then you are a step above the rest. Sounds like you do so yay for your players :) They probably have fun.
 

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