I was talking to a friend recently (about RPGs, which we do a lot) and he mentioned that D&D traps annoyed him. I can’t really remember how it come up, but he suggested one of the problems is that although dungeoneering is a big part of games, RPGs tend to invest a lot of effort into comprehensive combat rules, while traps get bare-bones mechanics. He also said one day he’d love to play (or write) a game that had traps mechanics that were as well-developed as the combat ones. At about that point we got interrupted by something else fun and never discussed it again.
That all got me thinking, and I tend to agree that traps aren’t really very satisfactory, and I thought I’d ponder about it in writing to help keep my thoughts clear. I’m not going to claim any great originality here, I just like analysing stuff.
What is a trap anyway?
Monte Cook came up with “a magic trap is a spell or magical effect that is triggered and that is intentionally harmful to the creature doing the triggering”, but he was only talking about magic traps. I reckon that can fairly be vagued down to “a trap is a triggered effect that is detrimental to the triggerer” to cover mechanisms without distorting his intentions. I went with “detrimental” because some (like alarms) may be harmful to their overall interests without causing obvious or immediate harm.
Of course, that definition is going to cover things that aren’t ‘traps’ in the professional sense. Venus flytraps. Spore-releasing fungus patches. Weak floorboards. Broken machinery. Unexploded bombs. Showers designed for acid-based beings that find any world with liquid water uncomfortably chilly. Persistent spells for healing treants that have disastrous effects on human anatomy. These things are either environmental hazards or unintended dangers.
Depending on what we’re talking about, we might want to add a couple of extra points to the definition: “a trap is an artificial triggered effect that is intentionally detrimental to the triggerer”. At other times, though, we might very much want to think about unintentional or natural dangers at the same time as traditional traps.
Traplike things I remember seeing include:
- A chest filled with darts
- A door with poison needles in the lock
- Bags of flour rigged to fall and bombard an area
- Pits with spikes underneath
- Patches of toxic fungus
- A corpse riddled with rot grubs
- Statues that animate and attack nearby intruders
- Rooms that fill with water
- Broken slats on a bridge
- Artefacts that fire spells at intruders
- Corridors with collapsible ceilings
- Sets of whirling blades that block corridors
- Portcullises that drop to trap intruders
- Walls that close in to crush intruders
- Rocks that roll down hallways
- Chests rigged with fire traps
- Nets that fall to trap intruders
- Sepia snake sigils in a book
- The old glyph of warding and so on
- Poisoned doorknobs
- Some kind of egg laid amongst ordinary objects
- Thin ice
- Damaged machinery that might harm the user when activated
How do traps work?
When a trap comes into play, it tends to work out in one of these ways:
- The rogue detects a trap, and disables or avoids it. They carry on with what they were doing.
- The rogue detects a trap, fails to disable it, and takes damage. They carry on with what they were doing.
- Nobody detects the trap. Somebody takes damage. They carry on with what they were doing.
There certainly are traps with more complicated effects – they spawn fights, or give the party a challenge to overcome – but on the whole traps are pretty simple. Is there really a problem here? Well yeah, I think there is. Several actually.
- Traps don’t work in a narratively interesting way
- Traps don’t work in a mechanically interesting way
- Traps don’t usually make much narrative sense
D&D traps are usually pretty crude, narratively speaking. If nobody spots it, then someone suddenly gets an arrow in the knee, falls down a pit or sets off a spell; but there’s not much of a story to it. If they spot it, then the rogue tinkers with it for a bit and then they carry on. I’m a bit worried when “falling down a hole” sounds like the cool interesting option, but it’s true... Actually taking the effects of the trap, or disabling it, don’t often work out in an interesting way. You’re really not going to relive the glory of the trap in the tavern back in town.
Mechanically, you basically make one or two skill rolls (Spot and maybe Disable) plus resolving some damage. The skills are really abstracted down to “disable this trap” and there’s really no interaction. You don’t even need to know what it does or how. Boring.
Plausibility... that’s a bit different. It depends a lot on where the adventure’s taking place, who the antagonist is, all that stuff. Fundamentally though, there’s just too many dangerous traps lying around in places where they just don’t make much sense. I don’t have a primed bear-trap in the hallway. I bet twenty quid you don’t either (putting one down after you read that doesn’t count). In fact I’m pretty confident not even the Queen has a bear-trap, deadfall, anti-personnel mine or even the tiniest little poison needle trap in her hallway, bedroom, study or anywhere she actually goes. Because they’re flippin’ dangerous is why. You protect your gold by locking the chest, not putting in a trap that’s likely to maim you if you forget the combination, because you will forget the combination. Magic traps get a bit of a get-out here, because magic can spot intruders and only attack them – but even then it depends on the nature of the trap. “Hey, I’ll stick a magic acid-fog trap in my house. A huge cloud of caustic gas that dissolves organic and inorganic materials won’t cause any problems.” At the very least you’d have to redecorate.
Tangent: Poisonous Doorknobs
Okay, okay, I wasn’t going to do this, but my brain insists. Doorknob Smeared with Contact Poison is a real trap from the actual official D&D rules. It and its bezzies Lock Covered in Dragon Bile and Drawer Handle Smeared with Contact Poison hang around on street corners kicking walls and muttering at passers-by. Look, Wizards - what on earth possessed you to come up with this dross? These are some of the stupidest traps I can think of that look slightly plausible just long enough for someone to use them.
Let’s imagine you want to stop or harm someone who tries to get into your secret room. The following reasons not to try ‘putting poison on the doorknob’ are just off the top of my head, right now.
- There’s a very good chance you will poison yourself
- There’s a very good chance you will poison someone you don’t want to poison
- How do you open the door without touching the poison? You either have to add a new door-opening mechanism, or remove and reapply the poison each time. Both are a lot of hassle, and the first only needs someone to watch you open the door to make the whole business redundant.
- Even if you’re immune to the poison or wear gloves, touching the handle will still rub it off so it’ll need replacing. Also, now your hands are covered in poison. You only need to forget about that once. Something in your eye? Full bladder? Boyfriend just bought a puppy? Unexpected visit from the elven ambassador?
- Any sensible thief wears gloves at all times, so the poison will be ineffective against actual thieves.
- Many poisons lose their effectiveness if left exposed for long periods, like on a doorknob.
- Some poisons will evaporate from a surface, like a doorknob, and become toxic vapour.
There are absolutely traps that are cool and interesting and complicated. They don’t tend to work out as ‘traps’ though, they come up as puzzles or obstacles to deal with. I’d like traps to be more like that, and less like arbitrary dice-rolling.