[D&D and Kin] Brainstorming Traps

edited August 2012 in Story Games
In response to a nice article by Steve Winter, I have pondered how I categorize traps for "dungeon" games such as D&D, Pathfinder, etc.
Steve Winter, author of The Howling Tower, has recently written a Kobold Quarterly article that categorizes traditional role-playing game dungeon traps into four purposes. Here is my version, which is as much alteration as paraphrase:

Puzzle: The story hopes the heroes find this puzzle and spend time or resources to solve or disarm it. Which colored tiles are safe to walk on to cross the room? How should the levers be moved to open the exit rather than the monster's cage?

Certain Death: The story hopes the heroes notice this trap's placement and also that they cannot nullify it. The trap must be avoided and exists only to redirect them. It does so with a satisfyingly suspenseful escape that focuses entirely on the current location.

Forward Railroad: The story hopes the heroes do not notice this trap until it forcibly moves the heroes to a new place in the story. The heroes fall down a chute to a deeper level of the dungeon, are gassed unconscious in the wizard's tower and awake in a cell as toads, etc.

Roadblock: The story hopes the heroes do not notice this trap until they trigger it, temporarily stopping the story. (Sometimes it is triggered yet the effect is not noticed until the heroes return to the location and then discover that an exit is blocked or an item is missing.) Yet it neither provides hints about what to do nor does it move the heroes along in the story. Instead the heroes must use the information they have gathered so far to decide how to respond to the halted progress.
Did I miss any categories?

Anyone have favorite traps for any of these categories?

How does all this thinking change for other types of role-playing games? For example, what are fun ways to handle traps in a GM-less game system? What categories make sense for a game focusing on social situations rather than physically exploring a location?

Comments

  • Whenever Ive been thinking about this, I just see AW MC moves. I guess what I am inferring from that is that I use traps as narrative tools, no different than any other GM 'hard moves'.

    The consequences being to 'seperate them', 'deal damage', 'take away their stuff', 'reveal an unwelcome truth'... That sort of thing.

    Do traps need to be categorized or separated from other means of antagonism or player obstacle? (other than as the narrative colour?)
  • edited August 2012
    Perhaps, Noofy.

    Steven Winter's insight was that traps need not be "hard" moves. They have two categories: (a) Are the heroes supposed to notice them before they happen, and (b) Are the heroes supposed to disarm them rather than trigger them?

    Do you have a list of "GM moves"? Perhaps the better and broader discussion is how to make interesting GM moves by including such factors.

    For example, consider this classic: "You spring a trap! You fall down a chute to the next level down." That could be a plain 'ol bit of railroading that redirects the story without Player agreement. I think that is what you mean by a "hard move".

    But perhaps the heroes are supposed to notice the trap and go around it, perhaps later descending the chute intentionally in a controlled manner or even luring an otherwise undefeatable golem-foe to fall into it? Then that same trap-mechanism becomes a PC resource rather than GM railroading.

    That the same map feature could change from PC resource to GM railroading based on whether the heroes are exploring cautiously or fleeing from a monster is an intriguing concept.
  • This approach doesn't really work for me because it breaks my GMing hygiene in D&D - as the GM I'm not allowed to think about the supposed outcomes of traps in terms of narratives, because the sort of D&D we play forbids the GM from manipulating play in those terms. At most I may consider the intentions of the enemy force in laying the traps, and that's usually on the axis from delay to deterrent. (There are, of course, exceptions. The excellent Grinding Gear is scary exactly because the trapper in there is not thinking in these terms.)

    Not that I've anything against others doing stuff like this you understand, just explaining why I don't have anything to add to the original observation.
  • I don't think that's quite right, at least for pre-3e D&D. In those modules, the trap placement and the nature of traps was far beyond "enemy capability" in virtually all situations. An enemy with the resources to create some of the traps in those scenarios was an enemy that could far more effectively achieve their goals by applying those resources to things other than the elaborate, ludicrous trap. It made no sense when analyzed in terms of "enemy capability". However, it made perfect sense in terms of challenging the players and trying to make an exciting environment.

    In 3e D&D things were a lot more scaled down. There was a fairly clear set of "how you make magical effects/items" and it was largely adhered to, so for that edition, yes, "enemy capability" makes sense.
  • Well, there is a reason for why I mentioned enemy intentions and not their capabilities - the former is sharply defined in D&D, while the latter is often merely guestimated. The point is that the environment is meaningfully challenging and the scenario as a whole makes sense. It is true that issues like how many pit traps a goblin tribe could dig are glossed over, but that's more of a technical limitation and a necessary compromise to me than an excuse for starting to consider traps on narrative terms. There is a huge distance from "I don't think that these goblins are being very smart about trap-laying" to "this trap being here makes no sense whatsoever on fictional terms, except that this is where the adventuring party happens to be going".

    Also, old adventure modules are at times unsatisfactory from my own viewpoint, they sometimes go over the line into lazy design with things like traps. D&D got caught into the thief trap pretty early on, and over time it became some sort of fetishistic point to have traps in your adventures just so the party thief would have something to do. (That's a fifth category for David, by the way - traps that are there for the thief to earn his keep.) Sort of like how all adventures need to have monsters and treasure, both of which should be merely ways towards a goal, just like traps. Nothing forcing us to play adventures that don't make sense, though.

    Modern adventure modules that I've been playing through the last year and a half are pretty good about passing at least a superficial sensibility test. At least our players have started doing some rudimentary sociological analysis to improve their trap detection, and usually this hasn't led them too much astray. Traps require upkeep, cannot be in populated areas, and so on, and most OSR scenario-writers seem to keep these sorts of things in mind to create a credible environment. There are exceptions, of course.
  • edited August 2012
    Perhaps I should add that I do not consider my fantasy RPG play style to have many "hard GM moves" although I am not adverse to discussing those further.

    The dungeons I design are driven by map element encounters much more than narrative flow. Events are triggered by scripting rather than story.

    I see my job as a dungeon designer is to design a bunch of linked but nonlinear encounters that promote a good story.

    I see my job as a GM is to improvise to keep the story fun when the dungeon design alone is not sufficient to do so.

    Going back to that chute-to-the-next-level trap. As the dungeon designer I care about who built it, why they did so, how it relates to other nearby encounters, and so forth. As the GM I care about how fun that encounter seems at the moment it should happen: whether I should use it as designed; modify it to make use of different PC resources, skills, or information; or move it to a different part of the dungeon. Only the last of these improvisations seems a "hard" move that forces the story away from its scripted intentions, and the Player would not even know!

    To paraphrase, I view my GM role as mediating how a scripted environment creates a fun story based on Player choices. My job is not to move the story along, but to help the Player choices move the story along based on motivations, interactions, and meanings supplied by the dungeon design. Perhaps I am deluding myself.

    UPDATE: Is there a forum topic somewhere discussing different kinds of GM roles?
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