Longtime Dungeons & Dragons designer Steve Winter puts traps into four categories. While I like the ideas inspired by his story traps and back traps, I focus trap design on two categories.
- Gotcha traps are the traps thieves can find and disarm. When triggered, they can deal damage comparable to the attrition of a combat encounter.
- Puzzle traps are the traps that defy a rogue or thief’s skills, but that reveal clues to their presence. With strong enough clues, puzzle traps can be death traps.
Both categories under the umbrella of D&D traps, but they share almost nothing in common. Each contributes different elements to the game and requires a different approach to design.
Gotcha traps include things like trap doors, poison darts, and falling rocks. As my name suggests, these traps catch unwary adventurers by surprise. Typically, no one cares about the mechanisms and operation of these traps, so the rogue just rolls to disable them, or the party steps around them.
Gotcha traps contribute to the game in three ways:
- They offer the rogue a chance to shine—and not by demonstrating her ability to backstab a magical crossbow turret for massive damage.
- They add to the ambiance of the dungeon. I like my dungeons to feel like dangerous places where one wrong step can bring sudden death (even if it probably won’t). On page 6 of Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax writes, “Besides those [traps] already indicated on the sample level, there are a number of other easily added tricks and traps. The fear of ‘death,’ its risk each time, is one of the most stimulating parts of the game. It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistent with a reasonable chance for survival.”
- They cool off the instigator. You know that guy who grows impatient with caution and planning, and so just opens all the doors at once? Everyone who enjoys a more thoughtful game and everyone who actually cares about keeping their character alive loves to see that guy get zapped.
To make gotcha traps work in the game, follow three guidelines:
- Gotcha traps must appear in places that attract attention and in places where a trap might make sense. This means dungeon doors, chests, and mysterious idols make fair places for traps. However, if you punish players with a tripwire in a random corridor or a pressure plate in an empty room, players soon learn to check everything and play grinds to a halt. If the players stumble on a gotcha trap in a place they failed to search, they should feel guilty of an oversight, not victim of a pernicious dungeon master.
- Gotcha traps cannot inflict more damage than a typical combat encounter. Blown rolls will cause players to blunder into some gotcha traps, so the effects cannot be lethal. You can read Grimtooth’s traps, but do not put them in play. In Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary writes, “There is no question that a player’s character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep or into a shallow pit filled with poisoned spikes, and this is quite undesirable in most instances.”
- Gotcha traps must appear infrequently so they don’t grow tiresome.
Next: Puzzle traps.