Starting in 1981, Flying Buffalo Games published a series of Grimtooth’s Traps books. They featured diagrams of traps that showed heroes on the verge of being folded, spindled, and mutilated. For instance, one sample shows a covered pit trap where the swinging cover severs a rope that drops a stone slab into the pit.
Dungeon Master: “As you advance down the tunnel, a trap door opens at your feet, dropping your rogue, Jasper the 8th, into a pit.”
Player: “Ha! Ring of feather fall!”
DM: “Ha! A two-ton stone slab drops on you, pushing you down the pit and crushing you to jelly! Do you have another character?”
Player: “Sigh. Say hello to Jasper the 9th.”
All the traps were ingenious, but very few could work in play.
In another example, a rope seems to offer an easy way to swing across a chasm, but at the end of the swing, the rope unspools several feet, flinging the victim into the wall, which is rigged to fire a volley of crossbow bolts into the victim’s body, before he drops into the underground river below, which I assume is full of sharks.
What paranoid adventurer would dare use a rope suspiciously ready for swinging across a chasm? And all adventurers in the world of Grimtooth will grow paranoid in a hurry. In practice, this trap gets bypassed without a second thought.
In most cases, even players who survive the traps will never notice the inventive mechanisms that make them function and that make them interesting. The traps could work in a sort of Toon/Dungeons & Dragons collision, where Wile-E-Coyote-like characters blunder into outrageous traps, only to reappear, without explanation, for the next scene.
Despite the traps’ minimal play value, Grimtooth’s Traps became a hit, leading to Traps Too, Traps Four, and Traps Ate. What made collections of useless traps top sellers?
“The traps were sometimes deadly and sometimes silly. They were often Rube Goldberg-esque, and not the sort of thing you could really use in an adventure,” Shannon Appelcline writes in Designers & Dragons. “However they were beautifully diagrammed and often very funny. The book was a joy to read.”
Much of the humor came from the books’ credited author, a troll named Grimtooth who relished inflicting inventive deaths on hapless dungeon delvers. “I feel that you’ll find this the most entertaining collection of traps you’ve ever laid eyes on. Besides, if you don’t like my book, I’ll rip your lungs out.” (Apparently, Grimtooth enjoyed Warren Zevon.) By flaunting the worst impulses of killer DMs, Grimtooth satirized a type familiar to roleplaying gamers in 1981.
Grimtooth first appeared on the cover of the fifth edition of Tunnels & Trolls. Then, in Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine, editor Liz Danforth drew the troll as an icon for her “Trolltalk” column. Grimtooth gained his name in a reader contest.
While plotting humiliating ways to kill adventurers, Grimtooth offered some good advice. “A few of you numbskulls out there still haven’t caught on what it means to be a Game Master. A GM doesn’t slavishly follow anything—books, manuals, or edict from On High.” So when readers missed the joke and griped that the traps proved too deadly, Grimtooth invited tinkering. “Some of you have twisted ideas about how to administrate a dungeon, newfangled ideas about delvers escaping with their lives and stuff like that. Don’t ask me to to make my traps less deadly…change them yourselves.”
By the fourth volume, Grimtooth’s Traps Ate, the editors had abandoned any pretense that these traps might see play. Now the traps include dungeon basketball courts with mechanical arms that slam dunked characters, and deadly Christmas-themed rooms that killed adventurers pictured in Santa suits. (Why is volume 4 Traps Ate? The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 7 lack homonyms, so they were skipped.)
Grimtooth set the pattern for new Dungeons & Dragons books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A D&D player can buy a Player’s Handbook and never need another book. Only DMs weary of the foes in the Monster Manual need another collection of monsters. But Wizards of the Coast aims to sell every D&D book to every D&D fan, so they lure buyers to books like Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes by making the text entertaining. Part of the fun comes from humorous notes left by Xanathar and Mordenkainen, characters who owe much to Grimtooth.
As for the troll, his wicked engineering remains amusing. In Grimtooth’s Traps, The Addams Family meets Rube Goldberg.
I bought a copy of the Grimtooth Collection a few months back. It is really fun to read, everything seems to be system-agnostic, and while not everything is directly usable, it’s good for generating ideas.
Also, hopefully this book will be the first in a new genre of book, which is the classic reprint collection. I love to collect older books, but they’re hard to find and sometimes expensive. So yeah, getting more companies on board with a re-release would be amazing.
There are still new Grimtooth books being made too!
“Grimtooth set the pattern for new Dungeons & Dragons books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.”
That is a… tenuous connection. But whatever, I like it when people talk about Grimtooth’s Traps. I loved those books as a kid. I’ll never forget the whipped-cream pit trap.
The whipped cream trap was a classic!
PLEASE! These traps saw regular use in multiple groups I played in and adventures I ran. If the players are too paranoid to set a trap then you just hide a different trap along the route they need to use to avoid the obvious trap
I don;t think that Grimtooth’s and Xanathar’s have much to do with each other. AS a Gm who played in the era of Grimtooth, I never liked them. I thought that killer traps were just encouraging slow, paranoid behavior in players.
Nice overview! I linked folks over here again this week. Keep up the good work!