Friday, November 13, 2020

Three Trap Types to Minimize Boredom

I have been thinking a lot about traps. 


My games tend to be fairly crawly. Dungeon crawls, blob crawls, forest crawls. Always crawling. 

Traps are an iconic part of the crawling mode of play but it's easy for them to be boring or frustrating. 

The key to making traps fun is to have a clear idea of what you are trying to add to the game play by placing a trap. There are three distinct reasons I use traps: as obstacles, as set-ups and as resource taxes.

It's also worth mentioning that I never use traps that punish players for insufficient caution. Game time is scarce and I don't want to waste it tapping the walls and examining floor tiles. 

Obstacle Traps

My players like figuring out how to circumvent threats and a trap that is easy to detect, tricky to disarm and blocking a path the players want to take is the perfect way to get them thinking "How do we deal with this?"

This is the type of trap Ben Milton recommends in his recent video. He advocates eliminating any detection step and letting players jump to figuring out a way around your hazard. "As long as they're thinking, they're going to be having fun."

I usually give an obvious clue that there is a hazard but let the players deduce what exactly the threat is and how it works. I have a couple engineers in my group that dig this. 

From John Arendt

An example from my Mork Borg game: A large stone moai head in the middle of an intersection turns and breathes fire on anyone entering the intersection (based on a post from Dreams in the Lich House). The floor tiles are burned in streaks emanating from the moai.

This is my favorite type of trap and if you have good examples that you have used, I would love to hear about them.

Set Up Traps 

The goal with a set up trap is to enhance a normal combat encounter by knocking characters off balance or putting them in an awkward situation when the fight begins. Classic examples of this are a portcullis that slams down and splits the party just as bugbears spring their ambush, or a spring snare that yanks a party member up into a tree and alerts nearby enemies. 

It is occasionally fun for player characters to sneak up on a monster waiting in it's 10x10 room and ambush it. More often, it's fun for monster encounters to happen in the midst of an already dynamic situation. This is DMing 101, but spicing up encounters by adding multiple moving pieces, took me a while to learn.

These traps would not be dangerous except that they put the party at a disadvantage at a critical moment. Often they split up the party or restrain someone.

The flip trap in my barrow dungeon is a good example. The leading character or two get dumped into a spike pit and immediately face skeletons while their allies are cut off from them, desperately trying to figure out how to get around the trap to help. It's a dramatic start for a fight.

Another example is the ravine ambush that I posted several weeks ago. 

Set up traps work because they force characters to respond to multiple threats, requiring different solutions at the same time. Again, interesting choices are what creates fun. 

Tax Traps

I play dungeons as a resource management challenge with a strong push-your-luck dynamic. Traps can wear down player resources and ramp up tension. 

Like the corridor traps in Darkest Dungeon

Tax traps serve a similar role as wandering monster checks but should be much faster to resolve. Wandering around in the dungeon wastes HP and healing and risks irritating conditions.

The key for me is that these should soak up minimal game time. They are not that fun in themselves, they are used to raise the stakes for other conflicts. To that end: 
  • Players are always assumed to be carefully searching. Don't let this devolve into triple checking every step. If there's a trap, whoever is in the lead (or most likely to spot it) gets to make an alertness save (or perception check depending on the flavor of D&D). Success avoids the trap.
  • Failing to spot the trap triggers the Angry DM's "Click!" rule: The character realizes they have tripped something (but get no additional info) and gets a chance to make a quick reaction to improve their chances.
  • Damage is moderate: Enough to sting but not enough to drop anyone. Getting killed by a dart trap sucks. An amusingly irritating condition is often better than HP damage.
The Click rule adds a bit of tension and player choice (even if it's often a blind choice). 


The key to a good trap is knowing what it's for. Either it should be a fun challenge offering real choices or get out of the way as quickly as possible. 

Are there other categories of fun traps that I'm missing? 

1 comment:

  1. This is a good breakdown - I like it. Good example for 'presence of obvious trap is obvious, solution is not'...