Traps – the good, the bad, and the ugly

People design a lot of bad traps, mostly because they don‘t know better. How would they? Nobody teaches you how to build or run a trap. Most of the DMs who know how are sadistic assholes and therefore unqualified to teach, the nice older ones know the problem and often don’t use traps at all, and the DMG just gives you rules.
Rules for making bad traps: Roll a skill check. If you succeed, roll another skill check that‘ll make nothing happen. If you fail, roll a save (the other kind of skill check) to avoid rolling damage. That‘s not a trap, sorry, that‘s just a series of dice rolls. There is almost no dramatic tension, mostly because there are no decisions to make – just the same series of actions, over and over. Checking for traps and disabling them is always the best course of action to avoid taking damage, not checking the best one to avoid boredom.

Not that I’m entirely opposed to boredom. Sometimes it serves a narrative purpose as the breather that eases the tension or will highlight an event that would be easily missed otherwise. Sometimes it’s just the work of making a stat block or other boring math, that are necessary to have a game. But sometimes, it doesn’t serve any purpose at all – and that is the case with bad traps

The missing narrative element

According to oral tradition, drawn from the infernal pit that are online discussions about D&D, boring traps have a purpose: They’re there to reduce the player’s resources by reducing their hit points or something like that. Which means they’re there to make the math work – a valid point if you want more math in your game, I guess. From the perspective of people whose idea of fun doesn’t necessarily include more math, it might read more like „we need the boredom to be more bored later“ though, which is a rather silly point to make.

Some, I think, argue that traps add an element of surprise to the narrative, as if nobody expects traps in a dungeon or on the locked treasure chest, and as if that fetish for the unexpected plot twist hadn’t ruined Game of Thrones. But let’s say you’ve managed to craft a trap that none of your players expect, the game, against all odds, hasn’t devolved into frantic rolling of skill checks, and they spring the trap – does that really advance the narrative? Maybe for the single moment of surprise and a few more, when the players tread a little more carefully, maybe it will add to the tension later, when they have to fight at a disadvantage, but overall the result is not much greater than „rocks fall, everyone loses X hit points“. Also, „treading more carefully“ easily translates to repetitive skill checks, so we end up with a high risk of boredom, and a low narrative payoff.

Lastly, that „Gotcha!“-moment, when players walk into an unexpected trap, can be quite fun for the DM, I guess – a small triumph over the players, who kept cutting through your monsters like nothing, the sadistic joy of seeing their shocked expressions, and a way to show them that you know more about the dungeon you built. Yes, they’re kind of a dick move. A trap that nobody knows about, except the DM, creates narrative tension and fun only for the DM, making surprise traps rather useless for creating a story together. That „Gotcha!“-moment is a trap for DMs who disregard their players’ fun in favor of their own.

Tension through knowledge

If you want to make traps fun, your players need to know about them. That is the basic rule of building traps that have a purpose in the narrative. They either have to see their effect (the bodies of other adventurers are a classic), one of its elements (the very pointy portcullis above their heads), or have a piece of information that suggests the presence of traps (this is the grave of a dwarven trapmaster). The looming threat builds the tension, which gets released when a trap is triggered or bypassed. Sometimes narrowly escaping or not triggering a trap increases the tension – in fact I highly recommend letting the players perceivably trigger a trap mechanism without any effect or letting potentiallly deadly traps trigger right after they’ve bypassed them, if you want more tension. This simple mechanism works, in a way (as it does for locked doors or treasure chests – it’s the same pattern of expectation, tension, relief), if your players haven’t become overly cautious.

It probably worked better in earlier editions of D&D, when it was mostly about dungeon delving and players were expected to check all walls for traps with a ten-foot-pole before walking down a corridor, with the threat of wandering monsters on their heels. The D20-system turned the first part into a few dice rolls, and the second part, the monsters, fell out of fashion, removing the cost of checking for traps, therefore making the trap check into a non-decision. Being overly cautious has no consequence, except boredom, there’s no dilemma and the tension goes out the window. The game mechanics work against the narrative, rewarding players for the boring choice.

Putting the overly cautious adventurer on a timer can help, but since narrative time is a strange beast in TTRPGs, these solutions aren’t ideal. Also, punishing players for not being fast enough isn’t really my style. My preferred solution is to make the trap itself into a rewarding experience, turning it into a riddle- or puzzle-like encounter, that can easily be bypassed if you figure out how it works. Additionally, it might give the players valuable intel on how the dungeon’s inhabitants think and thereby give them an edge in a coming fight. It makes them a little more interesting because it can’t just be beaten with dice rolls, forces the DM to think about why the trap is even there and makes them part of the narrative continuity. This doesn’t really help with the tension though.

Aaand Action!

The time where the tension a trap produces is highest, is the time between the moment it triggers and the moment it takes full effect. A time that in D&D is usually the one between the DM telling the players to roll a save and the result, shortening it to the minimum. It also reduces success or failure to a question of luck and math, instead of meaningful decisions. Once again, the mechanics work against the narrative tension.

The only trap in the DMG that doesn’t do this, is the classic rolling boulder, which gives the players a chance to run. A single dice roll is replaced with decisions where and how fast to run and suddenly the moment of tension can fill out the time until everyone has escaped, been squashed or someone has stopped the boulder somehow. The complex traps in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything function in a similar way. Rolling for initiative in that moment probably isn’t too great for the tension (I’d rather let the characters act, then the boulder move), but overall, that is better.

Indiana Jones – a bad example for archeology, a good one for trap design.

It probably is, because it’s been lifted straight from a movie about heroic grave robbing and nazi punching, which was pretty good at creating dramatic tension. The trap is visibly triggered, creating an expectation, the boulder starts rolling, creating tension, and Indy escapes, relieving the tension. The most tense moment in that scene, thoug, is probably the decision whether to throw the idol or the repeated attempts to escape the pit. Hard decisions and impending doom – they work and are usually better when stretched.

This is also the reason, why traps that actually trap their victims, ideally in a room with something dangerous, work better. The snake pit from that movie, the rancor pen or the trash compactor from Star Wars or even the rising water on the sinking Titanic are all pretty good examples: They force the protagonists to decide between immediate security (chasing away the snakes, dodging the beast, staying above water), and actual escape (smashing through the walls, getting out of the trash or getting off the ship). It can be effective, but is only half a choice: Usually, escaping is the best choice, it’s just a bit harder to make it in a scenario like this. It still can draw out the tension quite a bit and add some more action to traps than a single roll of the dice or extensive searches.

Bring on the drama! Save the gnome!

To make a very good trap, the choices the players make to escape it have to be meaningful, which usually means, they need to have an impact on the story beyond the trap or the dungeon itself. Yes, it would still be a somewhat meaningful choice if to escape the boulder, an adventurer would have to jump into an alcove full of spikes or keep running, but it would probably be a lot more meaningful, if an arachnophobic hero has to jump into a spider web or a character needs to leave behind something important to them, so they can escape. Building a trap to target a character’s bonds or flaws, putting them into a situation where they need to make an impossible choice, makes that trap more meaningful for that character’s narrative.

If your PC’s character traits don’t lend themselves to that too well, though, or you don’t want to single a player out that way, there is one meaningful element in every dungeon, that never changes: the party itself – or rather, the relationships between the characters. If you want to give them a choice that matters, give them a chance to save another party member at their own expense. Two characters that arrive at an alcove that will only save one of them from the boulder, a chance for the fighter to hold up the lowering portcullis at their own risk, a trap the rogue could escape easily, but the slower gnome wouldn’t, so they have to carry them and slow themselves… choices like these are always going to have dramatic narrative consequences, no matter how they choose. Save the gnome or save yourself – that is the kind of dramatic dilemma traps should be.

Lastly, there is one kind of unexpected trap that can further the narrative quite a bit: a trap that puts them face to face with the main villain, at a disadvantage great enough to make them consider negotiating and tempt the villain to monolgue about their master plan. Let them think they’ll surprise the villain in their lair, only to walk into an ambush, then graciously offer to let them leave alive, on one condition. Let them drop down a chute into an iron cage right above a volcano, where they can simmer a little and consider their life choices, before the henchmen find them and alert the boss. Let the one evil party member lead the rest into a trap, only to get cold feet before and warning the rest, or to get betrayed by their master, giving them a good reason to switch sides. There are so many other things a good trap can achieve than hit point damage and the poisoned condition!

As you can see though, the game mechanics don’t really help with that. They reduce learning about them and figuring out how they work to one roll, escaping them to another one, and I don’t think failing one’s save to let another party memberr succeed is even suggested anywhere in the rules, supporting only the most basic level of dramatic tension.

I find myself wondering, after those considerations, whether I should keep using any of the rules, or just design a sequence of puzzle, delayed consequence and dilemma from now on. What do you think?

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