D&D General What Are Traps For?

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?
I have a seperate classification then the two types you bring up. I have traps as Atmosphere and traps as Thinking Games.

By Atmosphere, this is all the random little traps I'll throw into a game that get instantly triggered or are found and have to be avoided etc. These aren't really that much of a threat but with some creative description, they become fun little set pieces that introduce environmental storytelling and also make exploration a little more exciting.

By Thinking Games, I mean traps become tense moments in the story where the players have to try and think their way out. it doesn't matter if they use ability checks to do this or not, because I still make them describe what they're logically trying to do. This gives people the dopamine hit of having solved a problem, and doesn't feel as cheap as a low-stakes combat encounter.

Overall, traps aren't that serious in my eyes. I find it best to use traps casually, like spice when cooking.
 

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I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
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?

I mean, from a psychology perspective, traps are for surprise and threat. They are for the reaction you get when the dice break out after the DM says "Okay, everyone roll a DEX save." Uncertainty! Attention! Compelling action and threat!

For me, the kind of elaborate traps that take up an entire encounter can be kind of unsatisfying in the way that puzzles often are. Roll a bunch of skill checks or guess what the DM was getting at (better hope they didn't leave something out!), and you know that the DM isn't just going to kill the party with poison gas, not when they have a whole rest of the adventure out there, so it doesn't feel like the risk is there. The idea of them is often cool, and they make a good companion to a combat encounter (where you need to make tactical decisions about using your actions to disarm the trap or stop the skeletons that are attacking you that don't breathe and so aren't affected), but on their own, meh.

Traps are often, IMXP, best placed as jumpscares. You can usually kill one character (they're one healing potion away from getting right back up), you can force the party to react to the sudden change. And yeah, the tension of "can we actually complete this dungeon?" ratchets up a notch as now you have one less long-term resource to spend. This encourages a sort of rapid-fire trap that can be encapsulated in one saving throw. And the idea usually isn't to avoid them, but to make the party spend resources if they want to avoid them (a spell slot spent on healing or a spell slot spent on a divination spell to find out which path is trapped or whatever). That adds to uncertainty and tension to the exploration.

And though modern monsters are pretty sanitized for an expected combat duration, I'd say that monsters often fill the role of traps, too. A mimic, for instance, shouldn't be a fair fight, it should be "suddenly, Lidda is devoured." The combat is just one way of rolling a bunch of dice to quickly resolve it.

And as I've discussed in the Exploration thread, cliffs and weather and rivers and landslides are often "traps," too.

"Attrition" kind of makes it sound like the point of the trap is to whittle away resources, but the point of the trap is to telegraph danger and uncertainty! You can't just assume that you're safe just because you didn't roll initiative! The dungeon is an active threat that is hurting you just by being in it. It's not safe here. Whittling away resources is one pretty effective way to communicate that danger mechanically, but it's kind of secondary to getting to the psychology of "this old ruin is going to cost us something every time we open a door."
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Way back in the original day, traps:

(1) Gave the thief (rogue) a chance to have the spotlight. Only thieves could disable traps, which were often deadly enough that not bringing a thief to the dungeon was a risky proposition. Since rogues stunk (mostly) at combat, you'd see many parties with multiclass dwarf or elven fighter/rogue combinations, leading to the mistaken belief that there were no human rogues at all.

(2) Were an alternative to the puzzle of combat. In some modules, a "skill check" would be insufficient. You'd have to play it out, leading to increased blood pressure and parties carrying around things like 10-foot poles, canaries in cages, disposable henchmen, and preparing spells like delay poison for the inevitable Type E kill-you poison.
 



RoughCoronet0

Dragon Lover
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.
I really like these sort of traps, primarily because they aren’t traps normally but due to different circumstances can provide a similar function as one while adding some interesting challenge and worldbuilding. Especially things involving abnormal tech because I’m a big fan of the trope of “ancient yet advance technology/artifact lost to history lying buried, waiting to be found”.
 

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.
True. Though I don't get why you think that is a negative. In general, there really are only a couple ways to do something.
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.
Like anything else in the game it does very much depend on DM experience and skill. If you have a Bad Casual DM, they will just spill some Mt Dew and say "you fall in my trap!"

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.
That seems likely.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
For James Bond to escape them
That's actually a good point.

Traps in media aren't there to wear down or just straight kill characters, but to let the characters look awesome avoiding and disabling them.

But D&D's built a cultural identity specifically against this; one where there's some expectation to see the trap hurt ad kill the main character. See also, the thread where people are trying to find ways to justify there still being a chance to get tagged by a poison needle through a steel gauntlet.

Imagine if Indy got just pincushioned with poison arrows and falls down the pit. That's what D&D culturally expects to happen.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
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.
I’m generally the other way. While the occasional funhouse dungeon is OK, traps as ‘cool ideas’ feel like junk food to me -a sometimes treat that my brain doesn’t really find fulfilling.
 

That's actually a good point.

Traps in media aren't there to wear down or just straight kill characters, but to let the characters look awesome avoiding and disabling them.

But D&D's built a cultural identity specifically against this; one where there's some expectation to see the trap hurt ad kill the main character. See also, the thread where people are trying to find ways to justify there still being a chance to get tagged by a poison needle through a steel gauntlet.

Imagine if Indy got just pincushioned with poison arrows and falls down the pit. That's what D&D culturally expects to happen.
Fantastic insight. I think for now on, I will play with using traps to hype up characters or make them look good.
 

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