In many of my experiences with old school gaming, traps have generally been seen as things to disable and get past, or as things that are meant to do damage to the party if they aren’t careful. This definition blurs a little as the genre changes from fantasy or dungeon crawl to something more modern or broad in play style, but often a trap remains something you find with a search check and then disarm. Traps can be oh so much more.
What is a Trap?
According to our friend Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trap):
A trap is a device or tactic intended to harm, capture, detect, or inconvenience a human or animal intruder, or animal pest or game. Traps may be physical objects, such as cages or snares, or metaphorical concepts.
Ok. That’s pretty straightforward, let’s work within that definition. There are a lot of ways that you can use traps in your game without making them feel like they are just a roll and a check to bypass them.
Traps as Possible Intros to Combat
This one has definitely been done before (kobolds, cough, kobolds) but it works well. A minor trap might alert and bring about a combat scene. Think about a modern action film or spy movie. The lasers surrounding a priceless artifact about to be lifted by Catherine Zeta Jones or Lupin can definitely be considered a trap. The trap doesn’t have any way to be easily bypassed (shutting off the electricity probably triggers the alarm as well) and while it can be bypassed by some incredible and slinky movement, it will probably call forth a slew of guards. The option to avoid combat is definitely on the table with this one, but instead of a single roll to disarm it becomes a series of plotted movements that engage the players’ minds in determining how to bypass.
The Key: The key to using a trap like this is to make sure the players know ahead of time the consequences it can bring. Whether its lasers in a modern setting, easily visible bells that are hooked up to ancient machinery, strings tied across the way or any other type of easily visible device, it should be known that this might bring about nasties to fight.
Traps as Terrain Modifiers
Indiana Jones walks down the corridor, unthinking as to what might be hidden in the walls or underneath the floor, when all of a sudden he hears a click. Suddenly the floor before him falls away, the floor after him falls away. Now he is left with only columns to jump from or some vines that LOOK sturdy enough. Traps like this make the terrain suddenly change. A wooden floor falls away requiring some quick jumping to avoid falling into a bottomless pit, or rocks fall behind the party stopping them from going forward.
Maybe there are more changes at hand though. Perhaps falling into the pit doesn’t lead to death or damage, but to a new part of the place being explored. Maybe the terrain modification provides some unique way to progress onwards. Throwing ropes between statues and making a rope bridge might be interesting or suddenly finding yourself on a series of falling rocks that must be jumped between in order to get to the door that leads to safety.
The Key: Terrain modifier traps have to significantly change how the characters move about. Think of any side scrolling video game, or the pinnacle of unique movement games: Prince of Persia. The key to making a trap like this fun is making sure the players know that they can still get out of the trap, but that it will require some quick action. Let the players know they can get out, and give them time to think of how their characters would do it. Also, having some visual aids to make sure everyone is on the same page helps.
Traps as Riddles – Plot Givers
Traps that make use of archaic riddles have been around a long time, but they can also be used as a way to give plot. The riddle just has to contain elements of the plot. A chessboard trap might have archaic sayings about Queen Anne’s only escape route, and the small pawn she carried with her. Solving the puzzle may require the players to put the queen and the pawn that is smaller than all the others on into a receptacle off the board, thus opening the doorway out of the catacombs under the cathedral and into daylight. This might also clue the players into the fact that the previous queen escaped with a baby and her bloodline may still be alive.
The Key: If you are going to use a trap that is a riddle make sure that the clues are READILY available to the players. Another place where visual aids come into play. As a Game Master the clues seem bright and vibrant to your mind, you’ve had them all laid out or developed them yourself, but you might have to give your players some help in getting them. Things the characters might pick out logically aren’t going to be picked out by the players. If you are interweaving bits of plot into the riddles or puzzles, then make sure those bits are bolded out from even the rest of the clues. There is a reason that movies such as National Treasure have such seemingly easy riddles and seemingly blatant clues. The audience has to get them if they are going to follow the plot.
Traps as Quest Givers
Not far into the ultimate dungeon, the group encounters a door they can’t get past, no matter what. It has an oddly shaped key and strange runes. Deciphering the language the players find that the key of ages (or whatever trite fantasy name you want) goes here. Other markings indicate that the Key was last being held by monks in a temple on the far side of the world . . . Now the players need to go find the key of ages and a whole new quest has begun. I’ve seen these kinds of things implemented in one or two adventures before, but always with some in-game reveal that it will happen. Removing the in-game reveal can help foster the feeling that not everything is centered around the characters.
The Key: Be careful with implementation, as the players, having just geared up to tackle a dungeon, find themselves redirected. A little preface might not hurt. Saying “You guys found the ultimate dungeon, but you’re not quite there . . .” will help prevent any harshness that might be encountered after the reveal. Also, make sure that the characters have enough information that they can piece together the fact that their princess is in another castle, for now.
Traps as Ending Points to Sessions
Remember the old batman TV show with Adam West? Or every episode of Danger Mouse, ever? It always ended with a cliffhanger, then SAME BAT TIME, SAME BAT CHANNEL. If you find yourself getting close to end time and want to leave the group with a feeling of dread about the fate of their characters, then set off a seemingly inescapable trap right at the end and pause before the characters can do anything about it.
The Key: Be ready for your players to balk at this. Stopping in the middle of the action is sometimes considered a cardinal sin. The players will be thinking and worrying about the fate of their characters from the end of game right up to the beginning of the next game session. However, the players will be thinking and worrying about the fate of their characters from the end of game right up to the beginning of the next game session. Find me something that builds a sense of dread better than that, well aside from the game dread that is.
Traps as the Entire Dungeon
To leave off with, here is a final interesting idea for a trap. The entire dungeon. Imagine a giant clock tower where the entire building is a trap and the characters are running around inside of it ala Tomb raider. They have to move through the floors and areas, looking for the appropriate pieces and then having to destroy or block certain parts to disable it before it blows up or eats the town. Maybe the heroes are shrunk down and are disabling regular traps from the inside, or the only way to disable the mad scientist’s robot is from the inside out.
The Key: With this kind of trap you have to make sure that the players know the only way to defeat it is through the insides, and that things have to be done in a certain order. It’s almost a social contract issue. You might have to provide some reason why it can’t just be blown up or destroyed though. Maybe it has a shield around it that can’t be breached, maybe it suffers from premature explodulation or perhaps it rebuilds itself and repairs any external damage, requiring you to get to the core.
The biggest point of this article, and the moral that I hope gets taken away from it, is that traps can be so much more interactive than they commonly are. Look at how terrain and traps function in movies and video games, then ask yourself if a 5d10 lightning trap, or automated machine gun is really that interesting. Does it seem as fun to just make a disable trap check to get past a trap? So what other kinds of traps can you suggest? Any really interesting traps you’ve used?