D&D General What Are Traps For?


Follower of the Way
As an Old School DM may game is famous for Hard Fun Nightmare Fuel traps. The typical casual player is "not ready" for the type of traps with will encounter in my game. Often this leads to character death and the player stomping away mad. One out of every couple players does "get it" though, and become a fan of Hard Fun traps.
Genuinely: What do "Hard Fun" and "Nightmare Fuel" even mean? Because you use these phrases a lot. And I still have no idea what they actually mean. Like they might as well be written in a totally different language.

I also, personally, find the vast majority of what you call "Problem Solving Traps" pretty boring to. Because there are only so many ways to "block a hole" or "break a rope" or whatever. I have encountered too many DMs who utterly adore this idea, but their traps are either entirely transparent (so there's...not really much of a problem to solve), or the players were never allowed to know that a trap was there in the first place, so essentially every trap is a guaranteed failure. (Or, worst of both worlds, it's near-guaranteed failure...and there simply isn't a solution, at all. Not even an "if the players can figure some way to block the opening," literally just...nothing. No solution, period. I've seen some of those myself, in the limited amount of "old school" gaming I've done.

Maybe I've just had DMs who don't know how to make "good" traps. Still yet, even in games where the DM was actively antagonistic to the idea of using rolls to solve stuff, traps have been consistently quite boring IME.

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Genuinely: What do "Hard Fun" and "Nightmare Fuel" even mean? Because you use these phrases a lot. And I still have no idea what they actually mean. Like they might as well be written in a totally different language.


I actually think looking at traps as either attrition or puzzle is too limiting. Here are a couple other ways I like to use traps:
  • Forcing new route-finding
  • Revealing a hidden area or hidden truth about the dungeon
  • Showcasing personality/strategy of creator or occupant
  • Encouraging out-of-the box thinking, particularly using non-standard resources found within dungeon
  • Tricks for PCs to lure monsters into, or to thwart being pursued
One of my recent traps - not yet deployed against players - is a Ghost Gas Trap. It spans multiple purposes… it’s a puzzle that encourages non-standard resource use, and there’s poison gas for attrition, if solved it opens up a new area but if unsolved it requires alternate route-finding, and it showcases the personality of the duergar warlord ruling city beyond the trap.


Another thing I like traps for is to split the party. If a tripwire causes a door to close or gate to fall, then time is needed to unlock it or force it open again. If a pit open and the fighter falls into it for a couple rounds, then the PCs are less than full strength. A rogue could deal with a time trap letting water into the room before people are underwater. This kind of thing.

What purpose do traps serve in your games?
The purpose of my traps is very similar to almost all things I do as a gamemaster, to make a living and breathing world. They need to have a creator, and that creator had to have a reason. They need to be logical. For example, why would an ancient tomb still have a dart trap that works? There are ways around this of course: magic, non-rusting mithril gears, cogs, and chains, etc. If I go down that path, then it's - did the owner of that tomb warrant such things? Same goes for traps in heavily trafficked areas. For example, the door to the pirate captain's rum room is trapped. Depending on the severity of the trap, it seems like a great opportunity for the drunk captain to trigger it himself. Which is silly. Since that is the case, I would place a more benign trap there. Maybe something that alerts the captain, or better yet, having the bottle of rum with the Jolly Roger on it laced with some mild poison.
Magical traps are a bit different, but they still need to have a creator and a history. They still need to make sense, at least in the creator's eyes. A demi lich in a tomb filled with undead can have tons of traps that deal necrotic damage because it won't hurt his minions. But to have something that shoots fireballs seems silly. Why would the demi-lich risk the chance of killing his guards and collapsing his tomb? (Unless it was some end game trap where he wanted everything buried.) And that is the point. A gamemaster could probably come up with a reason for any trap that has some logic built in. But unless the players buy into that logic, then it has a chance of being faulty.
In the end, traps need to make sense and must help create the world and its lore.
How do you implement them?
They are implemented where there is a logical need for them. I once built a dungeon that was the resting place of an ancient king. He was known, and embodied in the lore of the area, as incredibly strong. People actually whispered his name when they needed strength, from recovering from an illness to moving heavy things. The temple's traps were all built around strength. There was always a way to get around them - if you were strong enough. The temple had also been buried in a sandstorm for over a hundred years. So some of the traps were there, but the sand had jammed them. This made for interesting areas that PCs couldn't get to, but once they could, the trap became functional. (In one of the two cases for this, the PCs were clever enough to keep the sand around the door trap from moving, while moving the sand they needed to open the passage. :) )
For me, consistency in logic, lore, and history are key.
How do you feel about traps as a player?
I really like them. Obviously, puzzle traps are more fun. But a solid mechanical or natural trap that I didn't see coming is super fun. I may hate its consequences, but as a player, I am glad for the surprise. Ones that are used for attrition of resources can be good too, but again, they need to be logical. If there is a pit trap at the outside of a cave where the thieves hide out, it seems stupid to me. Someone, at one point in time, would trigger it accidentally long before an intruder does. Traps that are dormant, yet can be triggered by someone, seem much more cohesive in situations like that.


The older I get and the longer I have GMing, the less I worry about logic, realism, verisimilitude or internal consistency. I would rather come up with a cool idea and them develop a paper thin justification than exclude an idea because it didn't fit.

This goes for traps as much as anything else. If I want to do the old troll parts in glass jars gag, by Weejas I am going to do it and figure out why it was in the Tomb of Terrible Torture later.

. They were quite popular before 3X. This was the sort of trap you could just just lazily "disable" with a roll. You had to figure out a way past the trap: for real. And by "real" I mean the Players, not the characters, would have to Problem Solve and get past the trap.

Yep, that's its own thing now: escape rooms. There's a whole industry built around people who like that. They spend the effort to make a set of clues that are actually correct and act as clues.

As someone who gamed in the trap-heavy 80s & 90s and then spent years in college and industry to get an engineering license, I can say 99.8% of RPG traps that don't use die rolls to bypass are hot garbage. The "clues" are usually contrary to actual physics so they do the opposite of acting as hints. If someone else in the party doesn't solve it in 5 minutes I take "Hickman's Choice" and something is going through at velocity.

Everyone at work is aware of my "every trap room can be solved in under 5 minutes via the fire alarm" stance.


A suffusion of yellow
The truth is I’m not very good with traps either as a DM or as a player, A lock shooting a poison dart just seems a bit meh, even puzzle traps are more about the puzzle/skill challenge than the trap and would be better as a planned encounter.
Thus what I do like now is Lair Actions set up to be actively triggered by the resident monsters. The castle guards dropping gates and shooting through arrow slits, goblins sneaking around and throwing scorpion bombs, giants flinging rocks or forest rangers setting up rope snares or hunting pits -those make sense to me.


Traps can serve as indicators of what the adventurers are up against, reflecting the sophistication and resources of the enemy.

Traps can be alarms or signals to a dungeon’s occupants. Sprung traps are clear indications to patrolling or wandering monsters that intruders are about.

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