The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Traps


As an Old School Gamer, I grew up with the kind of traps that were brutally unforgiving and could TPK a group that wasn’t careful. Actually, being careful had little to do with surviving a lot of the old school traps, especially the ones written by Gygax (or Grimtooth!). Frequently those old school traps would either have no solution or would have a solution so obscure they might just as well have had no solution.

Traps Are Unfair

I used to hate traps, especially as a DM. To me it felt extremely unfair to kill or even mame a party using a trap. I have known players to hold their heads high after a character dies in a heroic fight, but never after a character dies to a trap; trap deaths are the antithesis of heroic.

Now, to be clear, I am talking about the life threatening uber traps that populate some dungeons, not pit traps or other mundane protections you might expect in a humanoid lair; I love those. I get a huge smile on my face when I can have kobolds kicking the butts of a group of mid-level adventurers just through clever use of the environment. But those aren’t really traps, those are just inconviences.

No a trap is something which in and of itself put the lives of the party members at risk, and for a long time I hated them. However, this hatred died down when I was able to find a way to make traps exciting, yet put the lives of the characters back in the hands of the players (where they belong). How did I do this? I stopped making solutions for them.

Changing the Way We Dream Up Traps

When one designs a trap, the standard way of thinking is to put in a solution for it, so the players have some out, some way to survive. The problem with this is that once a DM is committed to a particular solution, frequently he tries to force the players to find that solution. So what happens when the players can’t come up with that solution? All too often what happens is that either characters die or the game grinds to a halt while the players try to guess what one way they were suppose to solve the trap.

What I decided to start doing was to take off the DM hat when designing a trap, and put on the hat of whomever would be designing it. He would only have limited resources, and would have to take all sorts things into consideration that a DM designing for “an adventure” would not. Although the designer wants the trap to be a slam dunk dead for sure affair, he can only build with what he has, moreover, in most cases the designer didn’t build the trap with the party in mind, and even if he did he probably didn’t know all their resources.

When the party reaches the trap during actual play, the designer hat is no longer on, now I am wearing my DM hat again. When the players encounter the trap, as the DM, I need to be fair and impartial. When it comes to traps I tend to give the players a lot of leeway to come up with solutions I would never have thought of. The point is that I want the players to be creative, not just guess the solution that I came up with; in fact, the whole point of this method is that I am not coming up with a solution; the traps are unsolvable when created, but none-the-less solved in play. Being creative makes the players feel like they have accomplished something, a feeling they do not get in an extended session of guess-how-I-would-have-solved-this.

It would be really hard to win this game if you had no pictures.

I suppose in many ways this is just about the differences between a railroad style of play and a more open style. But that really was my problem with traps in the first place – they were very railroadish. But by allowing players to come up with the solution, it empowers them to be the ones writing the story.

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October 3, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , ,

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