Calmer GM: How To Make Better Traps

The Angry GM has a tendency to write 500 words of good GM advice buried under 5000 words of schtick and digressions. Calmer GM (props to Captain Person for the name) is an Angry GM article with the schtick written out. Occasionally this results in interesting but irrelevant anecdotes on like the history of video game emulation or whatever being left out. Usually it just means cutting entire paragraphs of effusive self-praise that’s supposed to come across as comedic hyperbole but which make you start to wonder if maybe this guy is an actual narcissist after the third straight paragraph.

Today’s Calmer GM is Traps Suck (original). I don’t know if there will be more.

The Problem With Traps

The standard way for adding traps to D&D is to have lots of dice rolls, at the end of which someone is either hurt or not. You compare the trap’s detection DC to the party’s passive perception, then you have them roll a DEX save or whatever to avoid the falling blocks, then you roll 3d6 bludgeoning damage against everyone who failed. Player interaction is basically nil, which is why rather a lot of groups have stopped bothering with traps altogether.

The easiest solution is to just not have traps.

Telegraphing and Reaction

If you think traps are super cool and are willing to put the work in to have traps that are actually fun, there’s two important things you can do to make them interesting: First, telegraphing. Make placement of traps predictable by limiting the resources of the trap makers in some believable way. This allows your players to figure out where the traps are located via pattern recognition and work out a countermeasure. Second, reaction. Have traps which require players to make some kind of horrible decision when they’re triggered.

Examples of telegraphing:

-An ancient, crumbling ruin with a crossbow trap set up in the rubble of an opening hallway. The party enters the ruin, hits a tripwire, and whoever’s in the lead gets shot in the face. By itself, this trap is standard trap bullshit, but it telegraphs a much more interesting trap situation: The trap is concealed by rubble, so it must be a recent addition, and it can only be added to positions with enough rubble to conceal the crossbow. Players won’t necessarily figure this out, but they reasonably could, and know to be on alert in corridors with rubble in them.

-A fleeing enemy jumps over a specific section of the floor. Tap or ping the battlemat at the position where they jumped, but don’t specify exactly which square it was if the players ask again. Just like their characters, they’ll know roughly where the enemy jumped, but probably weren’t paying close enough attention to pinpoint an exact location. If they’re very perceptive, they might be able to spot the faint outline of a pressure plate. Otherwise, they’ll want to devise some way to cross the entire stretch corridor without touching the ground. Worst case scenario, they can guess, jump, and hope.

-Invisible poison gas that can be identified by a strange smell and requires significant inhalation to do harm, so if you back away as soon as you smell it, you’re safe even without a save. The players might not guess the smell is dangerous in time to avoid the first saving throw, and they still have to find out how to get through gassed areas when they can’t tell where the limits of the gas are without breathing any in. The gas is highly flammable, but its detonation exceeds its original radius by about a dozen feet, so anyone who thinks to ignite it from just outside its dangerous zone will get hit by the explosion.

-Statues that breathe fire. The fire-shooting nozzle is very obvious and can’t be hidden entirely inside a wall, so the trap designers hid it in plain sight it by making it an accessory on a statue. If the party carefully examines the statues that shoot fire while the trap is triggered (for example, by tossing a pack weighed down with enough supplies (or rocks) to trigger the trap in between a few while the party observes from a safe distance), they can determine that it’s the ones with the bugles that shoot fire, with the bugle forming the nozzle.

-Magic runes on the floor trigger lightning on whoever steps on them. Probably the party is going to avoid stepping on them even before they know what they do. Then a flesh golem empowered by lightning shows up and steps on the traps to empower itself.

-Statues lining a corridor that smells of poison gas guarded by a creature empowered by fire.

Examples of traps that provoke reaction:

-A portcullis that slams shut behind the pressure plate that triggers it. The lead party member (who triggered the trap) is ahead of the portcullis, but the rear party member is most likely behind it. The party must make a split-second decision about whether to dive forward or back. Anyone who takes more than a split-second to declare which direction they’re diving stays in the position they were in (alternatively, anyone who wants to move to a different position than the one they were in when the trap triggered must make an Acrobatics check or DEX save to do so). If the party ends up split by the portcullis, they’ll have to find some way to meet up again.

-A floor that begins crumbling in both directions when triggered, which not only deals the falling damage from the drop if the save is failed, but also drops party members into a lower level. If they can find someplace to tie a rope, the trap can form an alternate route up or down from that level of the dungeon.

-Metal bars that slam shut over the door, leaving the party trapped inside while the room begins to fill with water or poisonous fog. The party must find a way out on a time limit.

-Say “click” when the trap is triggered and give the player advantage on a saving throw if they have a helpful reaction (hitting the deck to avoid a scythe pendulum trap) or disadvantage if they have an unhelpful reaction (hitting the deck to avoid a pit trap). This at least lets the player take a guess at what kind of trap it is and how to avoid it.

Most of the time, a trap with a good reaction doesn’t need as much telegraphing. It’s best to have both, however (and the “click” reaction in particular is somewhat flimsy and shouldn’t be employed without good telegraphing as well).

Searching for Traps

At one point in the article the Angry GM recommends simulating the boredom of searching every single corridor for traps by actually boring your players with repetitive descriptions of the searching process. This is technically content and not schtick, but do not actually do this. Instead, just have searching for traps take time and make your monsters more proactive defenders. The dungeon might not move around very much compared to a party moving at top speed from encounter to encounter, but if they spend ten minutes searching a corridor for traps, a goblin down the lane might bring the goblins at the gate their lunch, see the party poking statues with ten-foot poles on the way, and run back to alert the entire dungeon to intruders.

If you specifically want the impact of boredom itself to be modeled, require characters to make WIS saves against exhaustion as their mental energy is drained (if your system has or you’ve house ruled in status effects to do with mental exhaustion, use those instead). Have them make this save (DC 15-ish) every time they want to search a large area, and let them clear the mental fatigue with a short rest. Simulate the negative side effects of boring hyper-caution rather than actually boring your players at the table.

Also Dark Souls is great and the history of Kaizo games is kind of interesting. Please enjoy this end of article swear word reservoir: Shit fucking shitted shit fucking fucking shit fucking fuck fucking

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