The Trap Trap
I have bad news: Most traps presented in RPG materials are traps. They're bad gameplay, bad storytelling, and bad worldbuilding.
A while back, Wizards of the Coast released an Unearthed Arcana about traps in 5E. The article is totally passable and the mechanics seem soundly balanced... But they missed or glossed over, to my mind, the most vital elements of RPG traps: how they’re presented to the players, when to use them, why, and how.
WHAT ARE TRAPS FOR?
Mechanically, traps are a type of encounter, and are theoretically useful for depleting a party of their resources (hit points, spells) over the course of an adventuring day. However, they can also usually be bypassed at no cost through wise play, making them unreliable at serving as a “hit point tax.”
Mechanically, traps serve to create more diversity between character classes. Though it’s become much less pronounced, once upon a time, the rogue was largely a character whose job was disabling the sadistic and often senseless quantity of traps sprinkled through every adventure.
In the fiction, intelligent creatures use traps as a security measure. They’re a nasty surprise that serves to kill, maim or at least slow down a dangerous intruder and simultaneously alert the creature to the intruder’s presence. These traps are best served by being sudden, loud and messy, but not deadly. Why not deadly? Well, the creature lives here, and accidents happen! Not only that, but they might want to interrogate or even bargain with potential intruders.
In the fiction, traps are used by long-dead architects as a deterrent against looters and grave-robbers. These traps are best served by being both deadly and obvious. Why obvious? To intimidate looters. So that they get scared, give up, go home, and tell everyone else not to bother.
Meta-fictitiously, traps serve to punish players for not playing intelligently and, when DM’d well, to reward them for clever lateral thinking.
Meta-fictitiously, traps put characters into dangerous situations that can’t be solved with attack rolls and damage, and shines a different light on them, their strengths, and weaknesses.
THE STEREOTYPICAL RPG TRAP IS KINDA LAME
There is a certain joy in a dungeon delve where your party moves at a crawl, tapping in front of them with a 10’ pole, and checking every single floor tile and door for traps multiple times. A certain extremely finite joy. As a game play loop, checking for traps is boring-- so boring that most groups that play like this develop “marching orders”-- an agreement about the standard behaviors they’re employing as they traipse through suspect areas. Which is just a stickler-y way of skipping it entirely, if you ask me.
Old school modules are really the worst about this, because in those days, D&D really was a game about war miniatures, and Gygax loved forcing this very minute and tactical style of play onto his players. Much love and admiration for Gygax, but... creating a system with infinite possible play styles, but where only one is actually effective, is what’s called “bad game design” in other kinds of games.
And do you know what Indiana Jones didn’t do? Plod slowly through the temple of doom examining and re-examining each tile as he went. Sometimes he hesitated, but he did it in response to a cue that something bad was going to happen.
And then, the worst part about old-school trap design is this: even if you were being painfully careful, sometimes the traps got you anyway. That’s what traps were: an unknowable “gotcha” to be deployed without narrative function.
Is that fun? Sure, in the way that all gambling is fun. But insofar as the kinds of games I like to play are about making meaningful decisions, the “gotcha” trap is boring and pointless.
DEATH TRAPS IN OTHER FORMS OF FICTION ALWAYS HAVE CUES
The reason that fantasy heroes prevail over traps is always because they got a cue.
In most (badly-executed) D&D, you pull a lever and rocks fall and you make a save or take damage. Here’s the most famous trap in any media, ever. How does Indie outrun that boulder? It has nothing to do with evasion or trap-sense: There are multiple cues. An ominous rumbling noise, falling pebbles, and then the sight of the boulder itself. And how long is it between him noticing the sound and the boulder’s descent? About six seconds. In D&D terms, one round. His DM tells him what he sees and hears as the trap begins to activate and asks, “What do you do?” Indie chooses to run (possibly succeeding on some ensuing rolls) and lives.
If you keep examining other media, you’ll find that traps almost always have this six-second warning, or a clue or riddle the characters spend time pondering, and they exist to serve a narrative purpose: they’re there to impel action, teamwork and tough choices.
And imperative to all that is that the death trap is not an instantaneous issue.
IF THERE’S NO WARNING, IT’S ACTUALLY A DELIVERY TRAP
The only kind of trap that comes to mind which can happen without warning is a pit trap, and even then, usually, someone falls through a false floor just as another character says something like, “Careful, these kinds of places are usually riddled with traps!” But pit-drop traps don’t kill the characters, instead they surprise the audience and deliver them into another scene.
Here’s the kinds of scenes these traps create:
They separate the characters so we can see how they solve problems on their own, or to highlight character dynamics usually backgrounded in the full group.
They momentarily put the characters into a powerless position so a villain can appear over the edge and gloat, or a new/underestimated ally can prove valuable by aiding them.
They thrust the characters into a scene with a new clue for the narrative (a corpse with a diary or map, a new set of hieroglyphics, et cetera). Bonus points if that information is vital to what another group of characters is currently doing, providing dramatic irony.
They dump the characters into a gladiatorial arena, particularly if the protagonists are more adept at violence than the villain they were about to confront.
They deliver the characters into a death trap type of scene, which has its own warning cues, impelling action, teamwork or tough choices.
They provide momentary cover for a villain’s escape.
These traps aren't gotchas, either. For one thing, when there's no cue, there was actually nothing the characters could have done to prevent themselves from getting trapped. And for another thing, these traps aren't punishing the characters, they're putting them in front of another challenge or else actively driving the plot forward. They serve a narrative purpose.
What can a DM take away from all this?
I'm not the trap police, and I never want to tell anybody that they're playing RPGs wrong. But the games I enjoy the most are thoughtful about trap placement-- which sometimes means that there aren't any.
But I do use traps, and here's when and why:
Characterization. A trap has a maker, whether it's a long-dead civilization or an in-fiction dungeon master. In Holy Grail, the "penitent man" trap imparts a sense of character about the knights who designed it, in that it is concerned with virtue and seems designed to specifically kill Muslims (who would have bowed prostrate). I mostly use traps to guard wizard sanctums, paranoid archmages being the fantasy equivalent of castle-doctrine gun nuts, and you can communicate a lot about a person the party hasn't even met by how they handle unwanted guests. Favorite example: I had a train-robbing hick sorcerer guard his hideout with a version of the Sphinx's riddle that punished you for trying to answer with "man," because, as his illusory voice was quick to inform you, "Ain't no baby got four legs!"
Plot Necessity. It's really okay to force your players to fall for a trap if it's a scene delivery trap as described above. It is a reduction of player agency, but that's okay! We can do that sometimes! Especially if it serves the point of handing agency right back to them, in a position they normally wouldn't find themselves in. I once designed a series of solo challenges for my players that would have highlighted their individual strengths and brought some really "how do you handle this with no support?" questions to the table, but I let them have cues that they were about to be split up and they choice to bail on it. Which was fine. Totally fine. I don't still regret, to this day, letting them opt out of really heartfelt and personal trials. It's fine.
Skill Choices. At some point in your long-running campaign, you'll look at your player's sheets and realize that they picked some skills they have literally never rolled. If that includes the Investigation/Thieves Tools proficiencies, and you've never run a trap, you've failed to meet that player's expectations of a game experience that they will have. But even for the more unusual skills, coming up with traps that make bizarre use of them is great fun and a more personal DMing style. Whether that means having the players jump from wire to wire inside a giant piano playing a song the bard recognizes, or connecting the safe way to bypass a blade corridor back to some historical practice encoded in the wall engravings, it's a much more memorable affair than "dex save or take damage."
Anyway, that's about all I have to say about traps in D&D. How do you usually use them, and why? Are you doing it thoughtfully or just throwing them in because the DMG has them on a table? What systems have you played that handled traps super differently?