Thursday, August 4, 2011

Traps (Part 2)

[continued from here; and yes, I fixed the formatting so it’s easier to read]

As I continue my discussion on traps, keep in mind Moldvay’s version of “trap theory” and remember that this is not only the edition I play, but the edition of the game that I FIRST played/learned to play.

The following excerpts on BOOBY TRAPS come from Ye Old Wikipedia:

“A booby trap is a device designed to harm or surprise a person, unknowingly triggered by the presence or actions of the victim. As the word trap implies, they often have some form of bait designed to lure the victim towards it. However, in other cases the device is placed on busy roads or is triggered when the victim performs some type of everyday action e.g. opening a door, picking something up or switching something on. Booby traps should not be confused with mantraps, which are designed to catch a person. Lethal booby traps are often used in warfare, particularly guerilla warfare, and traps designed to cause injury or pain are also sometimes used by criminals wanting to protect drugs or other illicit property, and by some owners of legal property who wish to protect it from theft. Booby traps that merely cause discomfort or embarrassment are a popular form of practical joke.”

This sounds like what we’re talking about when we discuss traps in a dungeon, right? Devices designed to harm someone who unknowingly triggers the device. In the section on historical usage of booby traps, they begin the entry with the Vietnam War and move forward from there…though, of course, explosive devices (the main form of booby trap used by the VC or US special forces or the Irish Republican Army), are NOT going to be the usual traps found in D&D.

In general, D&D uses more farfetched fiendish, mechanical devices.

Regardless, here’s the part that I find most interesting: the EFFECTS of booby traps:

"In addition to the obvious ability of booby traps to kill or injure, their presence has other effects. These include the ability to:
- demoralize soldiers as booby traps kill or maim comrades
- keep soldiers continually stressed, suspicious and unable to relax because it is difficult for them to know which areas, buildings or objects are safe
- slows down troop movement as soldiers are forced to sweep areas to see if there are more booby traps.
- make soldiers cautious instead of aggressive and confident
- create no-go areas (real or imagined) after a booby trap has killed or wounded someone
- cause a section or platoon to have to stop in order to deal with casualties, thus slowing and delaying those troops
- create confusion and disorientation as a prelude to an ambush"

Now, to me, this list is the real meat and potatoes of trap design, and we can see how these various effects were incorporated (or not) throughout the different editions of D&D.

Killing and Injuring: as discussed earlier, this particular aspect of traps has been emphasized with later editions of D&D, though the WAY in which it occurs (B/X’s auto-kill versus D20’s ramped up damage and ability drain) has differed.

Demoralizing PCs by killing/injuring comrades: as a side effect of the first, this has also become emphasized…though how many delves have been abandoned by a party for this particular reason? Isn’t the dungeon created so that players will explore it?

Keeping PCs stressed: This is exactly the "keeping PCs off-balance" thang espoused in the LBBs...and again, the ramping up of the DANGER involved (damage/death) has made PCs far more cautious with later editions of D&D. The design of DCC (“add more player characters so players need not be cautious”) defeats this aspect of trap theory, though at the benefit of (hopefully) speeding play. I haven’t yet played DCC so I’m not sure this is the case.

Slows down movement while searching: absolutely…which gives wandering monsters (or guard patrols) a chance to catch up to them (an emphasis of Holmes). For the Gygax defined (in the PHB) confining traps, the trap itself can slow PC movement if sprung.

Makes PCs cautious instead of aggressive and confident: Yep…and the more traps, the more one finds this occurring.

Creating “no-go” areas: An interesting idea. It asks the question, “Do DMs want players to go into areas?” The dungeon does not exist independent of the DM/players…it is designed and run by the DM for the players. If the DM does not want the PCs to experience something, they don’t need to include it in the dungeon. It’s an interestingly perverse idea to create places that are extremely difficult to get into in hopes that the players won’t find it/explore it (see The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun for an example). I have been sticking similar locations in my recent adventures (the current one having the toughest)…but then, some might call me a naturally perverse individual.

Inconveniencing PCs with wounded comrades: this is an excellent idea/alternative to the instant death or damaging traps…blind or hobble victims of the trap so that the other party members are forced to abandon them or deal with their handicap. With magical traps, all sorts of curses can cause this effect. I need to include more such in my adventures!

Confusion as a prelude to ambush: This is similar to what Gygax describes (again, in the PHB) as channeling traps…things that throw off map-makers and force PCs into confrontations they might not want. The traditional “chute to next level” that lands a PC in the midst of monsters is one I’ve been toying with for a larger dungeon I’m working on.

There’s some food for thought here, and I want to continue this series with some specific examples from my own games and the effect traps have on players (as well as discuss some other possibilities that can cause different forms of consternation). Why? Because I think “traps” are an area ripe for an over-haul, and I'm interested in using them in unusual ways.

Have a good day folks!

: )


  1. I'm enjoying these posts on traps, especially as I'm currently putting some in a dungeon.

  2. Thanks for this. Mentzer more or less cuts and pastes Moldvay in his section on traps, so this series has really got me thinking about how I handle traps in my Megadungeon.

  3. Traps are a subject that I've never really paid much attention to, so this is all very interesting to me. I'd always associated traps with the "killer DM" concept, perhaps because of exposure early on to the "Grimtooth's Traps" series.

  4. I hate Wikipedia so much sometimes. Sure, traps may be baited. But the word "trap" itself in no way implies the presence of bait.

  5. Placing even one trap in your adventure is a surefire way to slow the player's pace down to a crawl as they search every nook and cranny for traps.

    Nothing wrong with that, if that's what you want to do.

  6. @ BTS: To which the answer is, throw wandering monsters at 'em to light a fire under their asses.

    If there's nothing to speed their pace, what keeps 'em from checking every nook and cranny, even when there are NO traps?

  7. You could have a "trap" that chases them along, like that rolling boulder in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.