Let’s get down and dirty and teach these players something today. You have just finished a 3-hour fight and defeated the dread-dragon Urizona, the necrotic bile of his breath still bites into your gear as your bodies have just gotten used to the toxicity of his lair. All around you are treasures piled high as centuries of sacrificing shinies to keep him pacified has been archived as loot heaps. The shifting coinage props up a gnarled chest with gems and favors that glisten in the sunbeam cascading in thanks to your mage blowing a hole in the roof. As the rest of the party is taking stock around the room the cleric recognizes a symbol in the pommel of a dagger sticking out of the chest and when he approaches it the chest shifts and lurches at him.
Dick move. You have now created an arena that not only has hosted a final boss but a trap that for some reason stayed dormant until after the master had died. I won’t say that trapping a treasure room is never fair, but like all traps, it has to follow the rules. Traps in games do not have to act like traps in the real world. A trap in the real world will sit and decay and stay lethal or change its lethality over time. In our fictions, the Trap needs to have two reasons to still be active. They need to answer 1. Why in-universe is this here, and 2. Why narratively is this here?
In an Epic Rap Battle of History, the Youtube series pits J. R. R. Tolkien vs George R. R. Martin and there is a line where Tolkien points out a problem that Martin uses in his literature that most game designers do too. Tolkien’s rapper says “we all know the world is full of chance and anarchy / so yes it’s true to life for characters to die randomly / but news flash the genre’s called fantasy it’s meant to be unrealistic”, random occurrences should be a seasoning, not an event. A trap that feels like it is randomly in the world or has a random effect, or randomly decides to activate will strip the players of the feeling of control. This striping of power can be used to some effect when you want to change the tone of a place, but when randomness starts affecting the outcome of an adventure it can lead the players to feel resentment. After all, why should I care about the consequences of my actions if I feel you are equally likely to randomly kill me?
If the players can come to a logical conclusion about why a trap exists in its location without the game or narrator preaching at them they are more likely to feel deserving of the outcome from interacting with it. If the players in the first scenario had seen chest size drag marks on the dungeon in a few rooms then they are more aware that something could be afoot and even if they die they can look back and feel adequately warned.
But warning and logic do not justify all traps. I remember running a premade game for a few friends, where the entrance to the dungeon had 3 instant kill traps to enter it. Now you could make a case that the warning that these traps had was to show how dangerous this place was, but in honesty, the warning was not for the character it was for the players. This was a sign to say stop wasting your time, your characters aren’t that great and look how easy it is to kill them with shallowly hidden traps. Despite being a classic, I’d argue these are crap traps. They do not tax the player’s resources teaching them the value of what they take for granted. They do not offer one party member a chance to shine in a way that is not normally exemplified. They don’t even work as a way of giving an environmental story. And that’s the problem with most traps in common games. They don’t teach the player. One might have, and the rest act as checks to see if the player had learned from the last one.
Which of these dungeons sounds more appealing to be a player in. Dungeon One has 1000 chests in it. Each time a player opens a chest the DM will roll a random die to determine the effect of the chest. On the chart a 1-800 is a mimic, an 801-990 is an instant death trap, a 991-998 is a madness dart that will inflict a random permanent madness on the character and 1000 is the key out of the dungeon. Each time a number is rolled it can’t be rolled again, because the fun has to end eventually right? And Dungeon two is an abandoned mine that was taken over by bandits. The bandits leave and set all the traps during the day so the treasure at the bottom of the mine stays secure. The first trap is a tripwire that causes a massive pit to open under the person that triggered it. This pit is used so the bandits can interrogate anyone that finds a way to their base. The next trap looks like a tripwire but if you don’t trip the wire before turning the doorknob the brass nob superheats dissuading the intruders from entering. The traps continue to shift from lightly threatening to maim as if trying to funnel people into one area. If the intruders get funneled correctly they will meet Izragurd the Mighty! This is the only Bandit left in the mine during the day, he is infused into a golem and locks the room when the party enters. Assuming they have seen too much Izragurd will try and silence them for good.
I’m going to assume the second dungeon appeals more to people. And I think its because the second makes a better story. When you tell others why a game is great you don’t often tend to celebrate moments when you were killed randomly, but if there was a time when you failed to see a trip wire got investigated and had to think of a way out of your binds? Well, now you have a story.
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