Traps in D&D and other RPGs are rarely exciting and more often turn into a tool for the GM to deal a bit of extra damage to the players. While the occasional “roll perception or take an acid arrow to the face,” can be okay, these articles are going to show you how to turn traps into an exciting encounter on their own.
The biggest issue with traps is that they feel unfair. When you put your characters up against a combat that could kill them and a character dies, most people would say that’s fair. However when you put your characters up against a booby trap that does enough damage to kill a character, most people would feel that is unfair. A player would be pissed if they were walking down a hall and they didn’t notice a pressure plate and 100 acid arrows kill their character instantly.
There are two reasons traps feel so unfair. The first is that it is pure luck weather or not the character spots the trap. If the rogue rolls a 1 on the perception check, not only does he not see the trap, but many people will accuse him of “meta-gaming” if he doesn’t play as though he already searched the area fully. The second reason it feels so unfair is because there is little to nothing players can do to avoid most traps. The player has no decisions to make or solutions to enact. They just get one or two die rolls to live or die. This is why a combat that is difficult, can still feel fair. Players have many rolls and lots of options, including fleeing, to deal with the fight.
Some GMs will say it is the player’s responsibility to search for traps as they are exploring, so that is their decision. Besides being a boring, this mentality brings up the second problem with traps.
Traps slow down the game. RPGs are games, and although part of the game is role playing, having fun, and making intentionally dangerous decisions to experience the epicness of a fantasy world, players usually want to keep their characters alive. So when a GM tells the players it is their responsibility to say when you search for traps, the tactically best answer is “every five feet”. I have actually seen DMs have players roll perception checks for every square they want to check, and it was BORING. When traps feel unfair and inconsistent, the only decision players can control is to check absolutely every tile, chest, door, wall, and ceiling for traps. This can waist a massive amount of time. I was once in a session where over 30 minutes of our game was spent watching the rogue roll for traps.
The reason traps feel unfair and the reason GMs force their players to do ridiculous things with their perception rolls is because most traps are not puzzles. The entire puzzle of the trap is the identification of it. Once a trap is spotted, the puzzle is solved. Once the party knows the wire is there, they step over it. Once they know the false floor is there, they walk around it. GMs know this, therefore, the only way to make a trap interesting is to hide it and hope the players don’t see it, or to invent some completely illogical restrictions on how to trigger traps.
These are actual examples from games I have played recently:
GM: “You walk 15 miles through the woods and arrive at a clearing about 1000 feet from the ruins. When you step out into the path, you hear a snapping sound and you fall into a pit trap.”
Player: umm, ok.
GM: “With your perception check you see several slits across the walls, and on the opposite wall you see several shattered arrows laying on the ground.”
Player: “I hold my shield up against the slits as I walk down the hallway to block the any arrows that shoot out.”
GM: “You can’t. You need thieves tools to disarm traps.”
In both of these examples the poor GM knows that their chaps have no chance of going off if they are spotted. The first GM decided to just hid the trap so well that he determined no perception check could see it and took control of the characters through narration. The second GM gave his players a chance to spot the trap, but knew that would also solve the traps. So he decided nothing could solve the trap that didn’t require a roll.
I used the word solve above because traps are basically puzzles. That is, traps, like any other puzzle, requires the players to make a series of decisions to continue on safely. The problem with traps is that they are usually extremely simple puzzles with only one action required to solve them. There is nothing for the players to do, no choices for them to make. This is what makes traps either dull or unfair in games.
So if we wanted to design a quality trap, that was capable of providing entertainment and being an encounter all on its own, we need to accomplish a few things:
The next article will start to implement these ideas and discuss how to designe a trap as an encounter on its own.