D&D General What Are Traps For?

Reynard

Legend
Spinning off from another thread because I think it deserves its own topic:

What are traps for -- specifically, traps in the dungeon? Why are they there from a gameplay standpoint? What play purpose do they serve? And given all that, how do you implement them?

For me, there are 2 kinds of traps: attrition traps, and puzzle traps. Attrition traps are things like spiked pits and poison needles and crossbows behind the door. They are there for the same reason "easy" fights are there: to whittle down the resources of the PCs so the player shave to make meaningful choices about how much farther to push to reach their goal or collect some treasure or whatever. And while I try and make sure these sorts of traps make sense in the context of the dungeon at hand, I don't overly worry about "why haven't the wandering monsters tripped this yet?"

Puzzle traps are full encounters, with multiple stages of both danger and disarming: the room slowly filling with poison gas after the doors lock, the descending spiked ceiling with no apparent way out, the room with oscillating reverse gravity and arcing lightning bolts, etc... These usually occur in weird places with a funhouse quality and I either do not worry about how they got there, or I come up with some completely bonkers justification.

What purpose do traps serve in your games? How do you implement them? How do you feel about traps as a player?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Since I find most attritional gameplay pretty boring, regardless of which side of the screen I'm sitting on, I don't really use attrition traps.

I do use puzzle traps, but I also use what I would call "environmental" traps/hazards. That is, traps and hazards which aren't really encounters in their own right, but which complicate the process of doing other things. They aren't there to sap resources--they're there to induce critical thinking. "Okay, we need to get the statue out of that room...but there's a pit trap halfway down the only hallway out. How do we get it out of there?" That sort of thing. The trap might end up consuming resources, for sure, but it's not there in order to consume resources. It's there to enrich the process of interacting with the world.

When I use such things, I try very hard to both (a) make them very natural, so it truly makes sense that that thing would be there, and (b) ensure that they feel "fair," in the sense that it's not a bottomless pit trap, it's not a Sphere of Annihilation inside the mouth, etc., but rather an understandable and learnable thing that the players can then engage with and, potentially, even exploit for their own benefit. (My players always get very happy when they can do that!)

That "fair play," not in the sense of some mathematical formula (those are useful for other things), but in the sense of setting down what is and isn't true and sticking to it even if that "breaks" something I intended to do--that's a big part of DMing for me. It's also a big part of why I have a pretty dim view of the DMing style that mocks the concept of fairness, balance, etc. "Screw the rules, I have the power to do what I want" is a bullet-train (or perhaps a bulette train?) to arbitrary and capricious gameplay, and I emphatically never, ever want to be that kind of DM.
 

Reynard

Legend
When I use such things, I try very hard to both (a) make them very natural, so it truly makes sense that that thing would be there, and (b) ensure that they feel "fair," in the sense that it's not a bottomless pit trap, it's not a Sphere of Annihilation inside the mouth, etc., but rather an understandable and learnable thing that the players can then engage with and, potentially, even exploit for their own benefit. (My players always get very happy when they can do that!)

That "fair play," not in the sense of some mathematical formula (those are useful for other things), but in the sense of setting down what is and isn't true and sticking to it even if that "breaks" something I intended to do--that's a big part of DMing for me. It's also a big part of why I have a pretty dim view of the DMing style that mocks the concept of fairness, balance, etc. "Screw the rules, I have the power to do what I want" is a bullet-train (or perhaps a bulette train?) to arbitrary and capricious gameplay, and I emphatically never, ever want to be that kind of DM.
Just to make sure I understand you, the above two things are separate issues, right? As in, if you wanted to have weird fantasy traps like spheres of annihilation, you would still implement them in a "fair" way?
 


DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Traps are there to change up the narrative within a dungeon.

Dungeons are a storytelling device. The story is these brave adventurers are risking their lives for gold and glory (or any number of other reasons) by entering this deadly area and surviving it through their wits, strength, and perception.

To make this story interesting... the DM doesn't just have it be a series of tunnels with nothing in them. Nor do they put the same thing in the tunnel over and over and over again. Nor do they make it too short or way too long. Instead, the DM varies up the various things the players (through their characters) will "encounter" while going through it to keep things fresh and interesting.

The characters will encounter descriptive items that fill the chambers and corridors (pillars, pools, altars, fungi, strange lights, running water, bones, statues, etc. etc.) that the players will then narrate their characters' actions to explore them... the characters might come across other creatures that they might need to speak to or negotiate with... they could encounter deadly monsters that will attack them either for defense, food, their duty as a guard etc. etc. and the players will then have to play the D&D combat mini-game to survive... or perhaps the characters will encounter descriptive natural or man-made traps and hazards that the players will have to come with ideas on how to escape or get around through clever ideas, equipment, magic, or other things their characters can do and the players can invent.

Now while a DM certainly could just "gamify" a trap for the players by stating "Okay, you've come upon a pit trap-- here are the mechanics you will need to accomplish to get past it" and then the players just go down the mechanical order of operations exactly like we do for a D&D combat encounter... most DMs do not choose to do that because it ruins the atmosphere and suspension of disbelief. Instead, they describe what the characters see, and the players describe what their characters will do. Which is exactly why I say these things are all narrative and story-- because our suspension of disbelief is us thinking and acting as though we are within this adventure story. And our suspension is quite a bit less when we players are just reading and following rules and a rulebook rather than using our imaginations to come up with things we would do if we actually were in this situation.
 
Last edited:


I usually use what you define as "attrition traps" as part of the defenses constructed by intelligent tool-using (and generally humanoid) creatures to protect their base/lair/hideout. So bandits, cultists, isolationist spellcasters, conspirators, etc. Generally not used for real combat powerhouses like a mercenary warband or tribe of giants - they just build proper fortifications and dare anyone to attack them, rather than skulking around. The traps are not only intended to weaken intruders and swing the odds in a fight with some surprise damage, they're also designed to slow down assaults and (potentially) pursuit if the defenders flee. They're usually connect to some kind of an alarm system, and replace or supplement sentries, especially for covering secret passages and escape routes where having some schmuck with a polearm standing around would just draw attention.

"Killer traps" see more use in places where the builder just wants people to stay out, or die horribly if they insist on trying to enter without authorization. They can be "solved" through some clever countermeasures (or boring thievery rolls) that exploit a wealness in teh design, but they're meant to kill you if you won't go away. So tombs, treasure vaults, prisons, the occasional planar gate or other arcane nonsense that shouldn't be tampered with, that sort of stuff. They generally aren't high traffic areas, and may have countermeasures to keep random vermin from triggering them - and if not, you may find "tripped" killer traps with squashed gelatinous cubes or giant rats or whatever overkilled in them. Kind of a fan of Questing Beast/Ben's advice about making these things really obvious rather than concealed the way attrition traps are. They're meant to be a menace to discourage people, and they aren't doing that if they can't be easily detected.

Only a loon builds an actual "puzzle trap" where the victim is intended to solve it, with clues and hints and stuff to fiddle with. They belong in funhouses and mad wizard's lairs, and they're really more about testing the players' patience and problem-solving skills more so than the PCs' abilities. I don't use them often, but they're a dungeoncrawl trope so they show up once in a blue moon. Justifying them is difficult, although making them an explicit "test" for proving one's worth according to some cryptic standard can sort of work, especially with gods, demons and actually insane wizards involved. If you want to lose players, make one of these things and don't have an actual solution planned. People just love wasting hours on a question with no answer, you bet. :)

As a player my opinions reflect my tastes as a GM. I want traps to make at least some kind of sense in the game world (including making no sense because a Chaos God just warped reality - that will fly once in a while), I want them to balance lethality/game impact with how well-concealed/obvious they are, and I want them to have a viable solution (even if it's just in the GM's head) and not completely roadblock an adventure if they can't be solved.

FWIW, many environmental hazards function as de facto traps, and similar considerations should be used when putting them in a game.
 

Reynard

Legend
Only a loon builds an actual "puzzle trap" where the victim is intended to solve it, with clues and hints and stuff to fiddle with. They belong in funhouses and mad wizard's lairs, and they're really more about testing the players' patience and problem-solving skills more so than the PCs' abilities. I don't use them often, but they're a dungeoncrawl trope so they show up once in a blue moon. Justifying them is difficult, although making them an explicit "test" for proving one's worth according to some cryptic standard can sort of work, especially with gods, demons and actually insane wizards involved. If you want to lose players, make one of these things and don't have an actual solution planned. People just love wasting hours on a question with no answer, you bet. :)
My favorite explanation for complex, weird, deadly puzzle traps is from Earthdawn, where there is a named Horror (demon, essentially) that is trap filled dungeons.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Just to make sure I understand you, the above two things are separate issues, right? As in, if you wanted to have weird fantasy traps like spheres of annihilation, you would still implement them in a "fair" way?
Right. So like...to spitball an example

Let's say the players are following up on rumors of an uncovered ruin from the time of the Genie-Rajahs, the Tower of the Leashed Flame. They do their research and prep work, set out, complete their Undertake a Perilous Journey through the desert wastes, and find the Tower. There's a magical trap to get in; that would be a "puzzle" trap, particularly since it would be something the original efreet occupants would want to be able to disable so they can enter safely. I'm imagining something like, I dunno, a pathway of colored flames, and the players must pass through the colors in order of their importance to the original inhabitants, from the "lowest" flame (the yellow-orange of utterly ordinary, mundane flame) to the "highest" (silver-white, the color of the magical, or possibly divine, Smokeless Fire). Their research would have prepared them for this in various ways (e.g. a successful Spout Lore roll would tell them the direct meaning; a partial success would instead note something like, "You remember reading that this group considered light and color to be sacred; their regalia looked like this" (quickly drawn flag of six colors.)

Once they get inside, they would expect nastier traps, because the Genie-Rajahs were very protective of their treasures and abandoned them during the exodus to Jinnistan only because they fully intended to come back for them. (In general, this did not happen. The desert is full of Genie-Rajah ruins that the Jinnistani have, in many cases, completely forgotten about, or no longer care to recover.) So maybe they have a room with Old High Jinnistani script above the door saying, "The Death Of All Flame." That should be a BIG clue to the players that there's something very nasty inside. From there, you take other steps to indicate something like a Sphere of Annihilation, e.g. "You notice a strange dip or hole in the floor, off to one side, which seems out of place with the decor of the tower. The hole's edge is perfectly circular, and the stone is perfectly smooth, as smooth as if it had been finely polished, though with the dust and neglect of two millennia, it's hard to tell." And another: "As you walk around the room, you can hear near the plinth a very soft sound, like wind. Which is strange, because the tower should be able to keep the draft out, it's made of stone fused together by efreet fire-magics, without need for joint or mortar. Something near, or perhaps under, the altar in the center of the room, seems to be drawing air in. That's definitely weird."

And, finally, if they were to do anything that would put something they value (limbs, treasure, important objects, etc.) at risk of being annihilated, I would (as usual) ask the ritual phrase: "Are you sure you want to do that?" That is my DM way of saying, "hey guys, this plan might have consequences you don't like." The players usually listen, but occasionally they decide the risk is worth it. Usually I only say that when I am of the opinion that the players have a reasonable chance of being actually upset by what might happen, not just inconvenienced/put on the spot/etc. because the latter is an essential part of adventuring. The former is not. Which might be part of why my players listen!
 

Only a loon builds an actual "puzzle trap" where the victim is intended to solve it, with clues and hints and stuff to fiddle with.
I agree in principal where the puzzle trap is intended solely as a puzzle trap. But there are plenty of real-world puzzle traps. A nuclear reactor going critical is a puzzle trap, where you better do things in the right order or you all die. Or maybe you can do it the almost right order if you have some PC losses.

An iron smelter, a complex mill, even a ship can be a puzzle trap.
 

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top