Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Traps: Are We Thinking About Them Wrong?

Recent discussion on Alexis's Tao of D&D blog seemed to relate to my recent post defending the labyrinthine dungeon layout used in many RPGs and video games. Alexis was writing about the treasure. Why is the treasure guarded in the dungeon? In his experience, his players, when they acquire vast treasures themselves, don't start constructing a trap/monster filled labyrinth in order to keep their funds safe.

I'll quote my response to Alexis and his response to me in full:

Dennis Laffey said...
I'm not sure if you read my recent post on my blog where I criticize a YouTuber for saying dungeons are stupid or not, but this post seems similar to it. The YouTuber was of the opinion that most dungeons should be the place where the BBEG keeps all his stuff. I disagree. And with regards to your point here, so does history.

Most royal treasuries, from my limited historical knowledge of the subject, were not secreted away in underground vaults guarded by traps and soldiers day and night.

And most secreted underground treasure hoards were not "someone's stuff." At least, not the stuff of anyone still alive. The treasures were grave goods interred with some king or other dignitary. Or were lost or buried in some natural disaster.

For most dungeons, the monsters really shouldn't have been placed specifically as guardians. The treasure was there, and the monsters decided that was a good place to move in after the people who buried the treasure there (or lost it) moved on.

Of course, why all the traps? That's still only logical in tombs, as they would be installed to deter grave robbers. In a lost city that was buried by an earthquake or swallowed by the sea but later belched back out again, all the traps don't really make sense.
Alexis Smolensk said...
Yes, why all the traps?

I've had player characters set up lairs for themselves. They do not fill these lairs with traps. Why do the monsters?
Why do the monsters build so many traps in the dungeons?

My question is actually, do monsters build the traps?

In the real world, where are traps encountered? Tombs such as the Egyptian pyramids and other pharaonic tombs sometimes had them. The tomb of Chinese emperor Qin (where the terra cotta army is) is suspected to have more treasures in it protected by traps. These days, though, we don't usually bury people with grave goods, so there's not much need for traps.

We do have other sorts of traps, though. Modern security systems include alarms and cameras (which are trap adjacent) and things like auto-locking doors or gates that close upon an alarm being triggered (which I would consider as actual traps). But these sorts of traps aren't everywhere. You see them in banks, high end jewelry stores, wealthy peoples' houses, and other places where there are things of value. Cameras and alarms have become much more common, though. Electrified fencing could also be seen as a form of trap, I suppose, keeping people out of (or in) a certain area.

Also, in war, we use land mines, and sometimes guerilla forces use things like tiger traps (think Viet Cong) or the like. In general, we have decided that people don't deserve to be peppered with poison darts or threatened with decapitating sweeping blades for trying to knock off a jewelry store, so these sorts of traps that threaten death and injury seem to be limited to war zones.

According to the random dungeon placement algorithm in BX/BECMI D&D, one in six rooms not containing a planned encounter should be a trap. That's a lot of traps. I know, because I used that for my megadungeon.

I also have been using it for hexes in my West Marches game. But in a wilderness, a trap doesn't often make sense. Sure, there are a few locations that are basically a big trap. But for the most part, I interpret "trap" as a hazard. So pools of parasite infected water, lava flows, quicksand, rock fall hazards, and the like.

I think a lot of dungeons should be designed this way, too. We don't need to be limited in our imagination to pit traps and darts and the like (although that's fine, especially since these sorts of traps are pulpy fun). But "trap" can also mean just a hazard. The natural disaster that ruined the ancient city caused the walls, roof, or ceiling to be weak in this area, and may collapse. Crystals in the cave wall may reflect your lantern light back in your eyes and blind you. A room's acoustics may be such that monsters in another area will hear you and prepare an ambush.

Thinking outside the box, even a set of natural caves can easily have "traps" and yes, I'd allow a Thief or Dwarf to use their detect/disarm abilities to bypass the hazards, if they roll well.


  1. I reduced my trap presence down to where ONE trap might appear in an average of 10 runnings.

    One response I have not received for this from players is this: "Hey, where are all the traps? They were enormously fun!"

    So ... in game terms, who are these traps designed to serve?

  2. Obviously not players like yours, Alexis. I have a player who is ALWAYS checking for traps (yes, he's playing a Thief). We recently ran through one of my dungeons that was a royal tomb with lots of treasure protected by traps and puzzles. He (and the other players) had a blast with the mental challenge of a dungeon that wasn't just combat after combat.

    When I get to play, I also enjoy the mental challenge of trying to figure out how to bypass a trap without the need for a die roll. But it is true that if I play through a dungeon without any traps, I usually don't miss them.

    So anecdotal evidence aside, what game purpose does a trap serve? I can think of three:
    *in situations where traps would be expected (tombs, treasure vaults, etc.), it assists with immersion
    *if well telegraphed, they provide a puzzle challenge for players to engage their ingenuity or creativity, and as a last resort a die roll to overcome
    *if not well telegraphed, they serve the (often negative) function of a "gotcha moment"

  3. Yes, I tend to use traps as hazards and obstacles, too, not just hidden crossbow bolts. A collapsing or unstable part of a cave complex, a chasm you don't want to fall into, a water hazard, etc. all count as "traps" when I'm designing dungeons. And I always try to use the 1-in-6 ratio recommended in B/X. I do not use the same system for "wilderness adventures," but if I did they would include quick sand, avalanches, roaring rivers, etc. not just deadfalls and tiger traps.

    I think the presence of traps adds a different challenge element to exploration, and emphasize different skill use. Thieves can really make their mark in navigating such obstacles, and it gives magic-users a reason to stock utility spells.

    But I also agree that mechanical/built traps should have a REASON for existing, whether in a dungeon or not. Setting them randomly just to have "traps to disarm" is a no-go in my book.

  4. Well, for one thing, this is thinking like a human.

    In most fantasy worlds there are races other than human, who do not necessarily think like humans. And many of them, especially the "bad guys," are subterranean. Even some of the "good guys" are subterranean. Let's just take dwarves, for example.

    Dwarves generally live underground. Heck, probably half the dungeons in some worlds can be attributed to dwarves (and their cousins, the gnomes). Dwarves generally are a "declining race," in numbers if in no other way. How are crafty dwarves, with lots of treasure in precious metals, gems, and jewelry (which they do hoard, in their underground homes, because that's the way dwarves like their treasures) going to defend that against larger numbers of greedy humans, let alone vastly larger numbers of goblins and other greedy humanoids?

    Well, traps, of course. Lots of them. Sometimes an insane number of them, because dwarves, though small, usually think big when it comes to protection of their treasures. Remember: the dwarves are always at war with goblins and other humanoids, not to mention greedy humans and elves, and dragons, and other monsters who might lust after their hard-earned treasures...

    So dwarves, if no other race, would have plenty of reasons to fill dungeons with lots of traps. And this would, by the rule of success, filter to other races, even humans, bot to mention enemy races, such as humanoids, who also live underground, and figure what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    So in a world where dwarves exist and have been around for some time, subterranean traps can be taken as a given, just about anywhere; and if there are gnomes, well, there are going to be some wacky traps, too, and plenty with illusions as well.

    As to why some traps may be where they are in specific dungeons, well, traps often remain after the original reason for their existence is long since gone. That pantry the orcs have been using that is for some reason protected by a pit trap and slicing blades? Used to be a crypt. Why do they keep the traps working? Well, the orcs know the traps are there... enemies skulking around in their lair don't. And even if it take out an orc or two by accident, well, more meat for the others...

    Just some ideas...

  5. You’re overthinking this. There’s traps because the dungeon is dangerous. That’s all.

    1. If we don't overthink things, what the hell are we going to blog about? :D

  6. “In the real world, where are traps encountered? Tombs such as the Egyptian pyramids and other pharaonic tombs sometimes had them. The tomb of Chinese emperor suspected to have...”

    That’s awfully thin. First of all, I can find nothing apart from sensational websites that suggest pyramids were trapped. Secondly, Qin’s tomb may be dangerous, but that seems to have more to do with poisonous mercury gas build up and less with traps. I could find no legitimate articles that detailed any traps.

    “I have a player who is ALWAYS checking for traps.”

    And why might that be?

    “ of my dungeons was a royal tomb...protected by traps and puzzles.”

    Ah. I see. Kind of a circular argument, no?

    Don’t get me wrong. I used to use tons of traps. They were confounding, maddening, frustrating for players. I enjoyed them. They seemed to enjoy them. But as I noticed a dearth of actual traps in reality, I decided it was silly to have them. Nobody in the history of the world has ever put poison dart traps in a chest.

    In the context of how Gygax et al, originally played d&d, it was fine. But if you are seeking something other than a deadly funhouse, something closer to reality, they don’t make a lot of sense.

    1. The player joined my game a year and a half ago or so. And I didn't use that many traps in this game (West Marches, not the Megadungeon). He came in expecting traps everywhere. And when he finally got them he was happy.

      So blame his previous DMs for that.

      I'm not overly concerned with realism in my games, but I do like logical consistency to my fantasy.

  7. In military terms, the primary reason for traps is to reduce enemy movement in some areas so that the number of defenders in those areas can be reduced, or it allows time for a unit of soldiers to respond. The minefield, for example, slows down an advance in one quarter, so that an advance in another can be addressed with more available troops.

    From that logic, it would make sense for a castle that is about to be attacked, or is under siege, to have traps set up, perhaps by sappers creating places where attackers would fall, or the installation of trip wires and such. These traps could then be removed when the situation returned to normal, and wouldn't be in the way of the defenders, since those are trapped in the castle anyway.

    There's no real good reason for a STANDING trap, one that would be there for more than a few days or weeks.

  8. Good points being brought up in these comments. Thanks, everyone for chiming in.

    My goal as a DM is never to run a realistic game. I like fantasy, I like science fiction, I like horror.

    But, at the same time, I don't like simple cop outs like "well, it's fantasy."

    And yet, I come to the conclusion in this discussion that there's more reality to traps than there is to dragons or invisibility potions or FTL drives and plasma cannons.

    How realistic traps are is really not the important issue. I think Alexis hit the important issue in his first comment - what is the game purpose of traps? What value do they add?

    For that, there's no one answer. Some people like them, some don't. Some see them as legitimate challenges in the game. Others see them as a waste of time. I doubt anyone's going to solve the question any time soon, but I did enjoy the discussion, and I'll take everyone's words and consider them.

  9. “So blame his previous DMs for that.”

    It’s not about blaming anyone for anything. It sounded like you were saying your player was “different” than Alexi’s because he was always searching for traps. And then you said you used a bunch of traps. It appeared you had your answer right there - he searched because you provided.

    Now you’re saying it’s the other way around. You used traps because he searched for them. Okay. Fair enough. But I don’t find that to be a compelling reason to use gobs of traps. Kind of the tail wagging the dog.

    “I’m not overly concerned with realism...”

    When I say “closer to reality” that is in opposition to funhouse style mega dungeons. If they’re your thing, that’s great, have at it. But I’m not taking about a non-magical setting with no monsters no magic and players having to role play every bowel movement.

    It is still a mythopoetic setting, but it still must be somewhat based on reality. There are peoplelike entities doing peoplelike things in an environment that shares some characteristics with reality.

    And since people don’t have crossbow traps about the house, or trap doors outside the entrance to their houses, neither do the peoplelike entities in my game.

    1. I guess I did read your first post wrong. Apologies for that.

      I think we agree for the most part. A foundation in reality helps make the world more relatable, but also more fantastic.

      I do have a question for you though. Where to the monsters in your games keep their treasure? In the bank?

      Most people I know don't keep their money locked in a box in their bedroom. I know some people who have a safe to store valuables, but not the majority of people I know. And they still keep most of their money in the bank. Do the peoplelike entities in your game also keep money in the bank?

      Do people you know get job offers when they go to the bar for a drink? Is that common? It's not common in my real life experience. And maybe that doesn't happen in your games, but you do have to admit it's a trope that many games adhere to for the peoplelike entities in their games.

      I'm not saying this to attack you or to say "you're wrong" or anything like that. It's more to show that where we draw the line between realistic human behavior and fantastic monster behavior is arbitrary. And sometimes, playing to the tropes that players expect can be fun for everyone.

      Now that I think about it, it would be hilarious to have a dragon sitting atop a checkbook instead of a large pile of coins and gems. Once. I wouldn't want to push the joke too far. Because the unrealistic trope is probably more reliably fun than the more realistic version.