Make More Interesting Traps!
As we think about dungeon design, we're going to tackle the question of how to make more interesting traps, as I think good traps can be one of the trickiest things when you build a dungeon (it's definitely the hardest part for me). We will first look at the common issues that keep you from building interesting and non-cliché traps, and then look at ways that you can fix the issues to make your traps an engaging and thematic part of your dungeons.
I. The Issues with Traps
As I stopped to think about it, there were many reasons why I'm displeased with my traps. First, traps endanger the fun of the game. What happens if you have an "Indiana Jones Boulder Trap" and a character fails to evade it because they just roll low? If they don't die it feels like a letdown, but if they do get hit does the player character die purely because they rolled low on one roll? There's a lot of ways that this trap can go wrong, and not a lot of ways that it can go right. But it's so cool, so we want to use it.
Second, traps easily become cliché. Perhaps even more so than combat encounters and scary monsters, traps seem to have little variety, resulting in a more common scenario of, "Ah yes, pressure plates that shoot darts" that you don't tend to get with combats and puzzles. This becomes even more true the lower your technology level: in a sci-fi game there are more ways you can trigger a trap due to technology, while a medieval setting would almost invariably use pressure plates, tripwires, covered pits, or some sort of magical sensory object.
Third, they will always be found. Almost invariably you will have someone in your group who walks into a dungeon willing to search literally every inch of it for traps, and since they tend to invest heavily in the Search/Detect/Perception/Whatever Your Game Calls It skill, they will likely find it. And that can lead game masters to just cut out traps entirely, because they will spot all of the tripwires, pressure plates, and hidden levers that they come across short of magic warding it from sight. And that's boring, not to mention a great way to say, "I'm the game master, and I gave you a trap that you couldn't see because I just didn't want you to see it," and that's no good.
Fourth, traps often come down to one roll. And that's just no fun for anyone. This is especially true in d20 core systems, where a character has just as good a chance of rolling abysmally low or amazingly high on each roll. So traps often come down to, "Can we catch the adventurer at their worst," and that doesn't jive with how I like to approach cooperative storytelling.
So how do we fix this? Here's how.
II. Fixing Traps
There are six things you can do to make your traps more interesting. First, test the player, not the character. The goal of a trap is not combat (unless combat is tied to the trap, which I recommend you do): it's to test the awareness and wariness of the players. The goal of your traps is to keep the players on their toes, heightening the tension and the drama to keep your players engaged.
So don't just throw a trap to "remove hit points" or "burn through resources." They should do that as that heightens the tension and grows the drama (and nothing grows the drama and tension like the fear of death), but the goal of traps should be to remind the players that dungeons are dangerous, not purely to whittle down their resources. And this is key because if your players figure out the trap, successfully work around it, and suffer no damage, you'll be disappointed with your own traps if your goal is to whittle the characters down. If your goal is to keep their heads on a swivel, you've succeeded even as they've succeeded. And that feels good.
Second, let them find it. In perhaps my most controversial piece of advice, don't hide the trap: tell them that they see it off the bat (or, still better, tell the person who invested in their Search/Perception/Whatever ability that they see it, rewarding them for investing in it). But shift the fun to investigating the trap instead of finding the trap. Classic example: you tell your party, "You enter a hallway where there are sculpted dragon heads that jut out of the wall, their mouths open with visible holes going down the mouth. The floor is paved, and you (pointing to your high Search/Perception player) see that some of the stones in the floor are higher or lower than others. Some of these are definitely pressure plates. What do you do?"
The party starts saying, "Okay: the dragon heads probably shoot fire at us, so we need to be careful where we step. Let's let our high-Perception character go first so that they can show us where to stand." Or they might send their beefiest person out first with the high-Perception person telling them where to go.
They then start asking questions about the cobblestones, the dragons, whether they can swing/fly over the heads of the dragons - you have them hooked. They're engaged and happy. Successful trap! Treat yourself to an Oreo. But it gets better...
Third (and related), subvert expectations. What if the pressure plates close the dragon mouths, so the party is supposed to step on the pressure plates? Perhaps the movement of something through the air causes the flame to come out, but stepping on the plate moves a rock slab to cover the opening, stopping the fire? Someone gets a bit singed as they carefully avoid the pressure plates, and now they have to stop and rethink the plan. Now we have an interesting trap!
And from a realism standpoint it makes sense: maybe the guy who build this place was a roguish fellow in life, and thought to himself, "What would a thief do if they came to steal from me?" And then the rogue planned the dungeon around how to get the intruder to do all the things that would get them injured, deterring them from getting to his/her stuff. So they made the pressure plates the only places that you want to step as you cross, because who does that?!?!?!?
Fourth, get creative with technology. What if the tripwire is a fuse, so that if they try to light it with a fire spell from a distance it actually lights an explosive? What if the tripwire is under tension holding up a massive weight, and by cutting the tripwire they drop rocks that were being held up by the rope to block the way of escape, or fall on the intruders, or whatever you'd like it to be? The trap designer intended to just walk over them, not cut them, but adventurers like disarming traps so they would cut the wire. Use technology creatively to change up how your traps work.
Fifth, allow reactions. Is a boulder coming and you missed the jump? Allow them to instead attempt to run up the boulder (albeit at a steep difficulty). Did they fall into a pit because they missed the footing roll? Allow them to grab onto the side as they fall and hang precariously over the spikes below.
And finally, make failed attempts an opportunity. If the party is worried about falling into a massive hole, make it so that there is an underground river at the bottom of the hole that carries them deeper into the dungeon. This splits the party (which is dangerous) but also allows the stranded people to evade some of the dangerous foes in the dungeon as well. It also means that getting out will be tricky as there are bad guys waiting for them after the final fight, but it does make things more interesting and it enables player agency. They can always fight their way to their friends.
Traps are fun - they are an effective tool to check the instincts of your players and reward those who think ahead, and that has great potential to make your session very rewarding for the players around your table. And of course, as we've mentioned in other posts in our series, traps get even better when you run into foes that must be fought while keeping in mind the rules of the trap.
The trick is keeping the role of traps clear when designing them: traps round out the Trap-Puzzle-Combat trifecta by testing instincts, not cerebral skill (puzzles) or martial prowess (combat). And when traps stay within their realm, they are far more interesting.
Until next time,