4 min read

It's A Trap

It's A Trap
Look at that goofy suit. Still, classic movie. All credit to Lucasfilm.

Being a game master means having a good handle on the hundreds of different elements that go into creating a D&D experience.

Some of them are narrative, like the history of the world, the personality traits of non-player characters, any relevant cosmology, the delicate web of relationships between factions, and whatever story threads are currently in play.

Some of them are mechanical, like the capabilities of character classes, the meaning of ability scores, how to run turn-based combat, movement on grid-based maps, and the assortment of multi-sided dice and how to use them.

Then there are traps.

There's Nothing To See Here

A trap is any sort of mechanism that a player character might trigger which creates an effect of some sort. Think Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, grabbing the golden idol off of its pressure plate and subsequently triggering a boulder trap intended to crush him into a fine paste.

Even to people who don't play D&D, the concept of a trap is easily relatable. After all, setting a trap is a pretty classic example of thinking ahead, something that most humans do pretty well.

Traps generally exist in the world for a reason, which means they can form part of the narrative. Murderous traps in an ancient tomb might be a classic trope, but it's still an effective way of showing your players that there is something there that is worth protecting, which can motivate them to push ahead.

Hell, even already triggered traps can tell a story. Perhaps the players aren't the first ones to enter the tomb? Finding the remains of previous explorers and the traps that killed them can build a narrative while also providing a warning of what might be ahead.

But traps are fundamentally mechanical as well; they always have a triggering mechanism of some sort and a mostly pre-determined outcome.

Said mechanisms are usually familiar to players, especially if the players are experienced. Pressure plates and tripwires are some of the most common triggers, and come with a general understanding of how they can be subverted or disarmed. Even less common mechanisms like curses or false floors still follow easily understandable rules.

In comparison, an encounter with a non-player character is much more open-ended, hard to anticipate and difficult to predict, both for players and game masters alike.

You're Going To Die You Know

I don't really like traps all that much.

The anticipation of traps often changes the behaviour of players, making them act in a way that doesn't align with the character that they are playing.

Good players will consider the traits of their character when considering their actions. A reckless and unthinking character will charge ahead, triggering traps left, right and centre and suffering the consequences, while a careful and methodical character will take their time, searching and subsequently disarming whatever they find in the interests of their own safety.

But the presence of traps often overwrites those character specific interactions, as the player attempts to protect themselves from danger.

If you're a player and you're exploring a potentially dangerous situation, of course you're going to check every nook and cranny to avoid being pasted by a boulder. If you don't, you're just going to get punished.

And that's not fun for anyone.

I also dislike the lack of flexibility of traps, as it means there is very little you can improvise in order to create an interesting encounter. Traps have to follow a set of mechanical rules, which means that the resulting interaction is often also mechanical, following the same path every time.

A predictable encounter with a mechanical set of actions and reactions doesn't make for fun gameplay and rarely makes for a fun story that people remember later on.

It's not impossible though...

One Aarakocra Died For This Information

I run regular D&D sessions that focus on delving into the depths of a large labyrinthian complex called Undermountain. Said dungeon is located under the city of Waterdeep and is otherwise known as The Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of traps for players to stumble into.

It makes sense thematically, Undermountain is the home and plaything of the powerful mage Halaster, and one of his core motivations is to test the adventurers who wander inside, to see if they are capable enough to be of use to him.

One trap in particular was both successful and memorable enough to spawn an entire short story, what was an unexpected surprise. Usually traps are pretty one-note, a short bump on a larger, much more interesting journey.

In this case, the trap in question was a throne made of bones, sitting in a prominent position in an amphitheatre like area. You know, where a throne would normally be situated, such that a monarch or similar could sit above their subjects while addressing them.

The trigger mechanism was simple: sit on the throne.

The effect was also simple: magical snakes hidden in the throne would come to life and bite the occupant, injecting them with a deadly venom.

Narratively, the throne was occupied by a wannabe vampiress who knew how to sit on it without triggering the trap, and was using it for its intended purpose: to lord over a group of bandits who were playing at being vampires.

Having cleared the area, most players would resist the temptation to sit in that throne because there are some pretty obvious trap signals being fired.

Full credit to one of my players though, his character really wanted to sit in that throne and he played to that.

He sat on the throne.

His character died as a result, but it was a fantastic moment of collaborative storytelling and an example of a player embodying his character, rather than trying to play a game.

When the stars align, traps can work.

Your Overconfidence Is Your Weakness

Even though I said that I don't really like traps all that much, I won't go out of my way to excise them from any adventure that I'm running.

They can definitely add to both the gameplay and storytelling of an adventure, but you have to use them with care and make sure they exist for a reason other than to screw your players over.

Nothing feels worse than to get nailed by a trap for no apparent reason, when all you wanted to do was have a look around. Keep doing that and you'll train your players in the wrong direction.

The last thing you want is for your them to take two-hours to walk down a 30-foot hallway because they insist on touching every single brick and flagstone with a 10-foot pole.

That's not fun for anyone.