Tag Archives: traps

My Two Most Controversial Posts Prompt a Trip Into the Comment Section

The last two months included the two most discussed posts in the 7-year history of DM David, which calls for another trip into the comment section.

In Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters? I considered the pros and cons of asking players to share a role that usually falls to the dungeon master.

Ilbranteloth suggested turning potentially dead characters into an invitation to let players imagine a different twist. “On potentially deadly hits against the PCs, they decide if they are killed, or something more dramatic (and often worse) happens.” Perhaps the character loses a leg and a bit of speed. Or perhaps the player trades death for some dramatic complication. Players focused on story understand that character arcs benefit from setbacks and might be eager to revive a dead character in exchange for a complication that makes a richer story.

After I created a Dungeons & Dragons Summoning Spell Reference, Teos “alphasream” Abadia shared some concerns raised by summoning.

I’m not generally a fan of the summoning spells. They can be too strong (they can be like a fireball of damage every round, round after round, for the casting of one spell), they tie up the terrain impeding movement (especially by locking down melee fighters, preventing a dynamic combat), and they make combat a slog (in almost any combat, the monsters lack the damage to kill more than a couple of the summoned monsters).

That last bit is what kills it for me. At the meta level, the monsters should ignore the summoned creatures, because killing them is basically impossible unless they’re a horde of low CR creatures and the monsters have area attacks. So, the easy move is to target the summoner and break their concentration, but that takes away from what the player who did the summoning wants. I haven’t found a happy medium.

Summoning spells typically offer a choice between lots of weaker monsters and fewer, stronger monsters. When the designers set choices that made summoning crowds far more efficient, they made the spells more likely to turn fights into slogs.

When I play foes with an 8 or higher intelligence who see ongoing spell effects, I start making spellcasters preferred targets. After all, characters with an 8 Intelligence practice even more savvy tactics. When players think their DM unreasonably targets them with attacks, players can get salty, but when concentrating spellcasters become targets, their players know it’s coming.

Two readers added to The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods.

Alphastream wrote, “Some readers may not appreciate how, back then, books hung around for a long time. We had decades with the same books on the shelves. Not as old stock in a corner, but as an active part of what gamers would buy and use. As an example, check out this Shannon Appelcline article where he shares White Wolf Magazine’s list of top-selling RPGs for 1992. At number 9 is the 1981 Fiend Folio!

Books like Deities & Demigods were a presence for decades, which helped keep this bit of controversy prominent across many years.

The long sales life of books from this era also led to a 2nd edition that remained broadly compatible with AD&D. The designers wanted to make big improvements, but TSR management wanted books like that old Fiend Folio to continue generating sales.

Zenopus Archives wrote, “There’s a whole earlier chapter to this story. The Mythos write-up in Deities & Demigods is derivative of the original write-up ‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ by J. Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz that was published in Dragon magazine 12 in 1978. The bulk of this article was written by Holmes, and the Deities & Demigods write-up has the same entries, except for one. To me, Deities & Demigods clearly used the original article as a starting point. Read more at Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos.

In Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League, I wrote about how D&D traditionally motivates both characters and players to seek gold. This tempts players to take the risks that help make D&D fun.

Eric Bohm wrote, “Taking the treasure out of the game seriously undermines an important component of the D&D formula. The heroic component remains mostly intact. If your character is motivated to help people for the sake of helping them, with only an abstract unquantifiable reward, everything works. Other kinds of characters are less well supported, while truly mercenary character concepts become basically unplayable.

What about the lovable scamp who is in it for the gold? Or the many redemptive arcs of those get roped in for the base rewards and are swept up in higher motivations? How can a malefactor tempt a hero away from the path of virtue?

The only character who grabbed any money from the hoard in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist when I ran it was an NPC. The players weren’t tempted; therefore they did not feel like it was worth roleplaying their characters being at all tempted. It just wasn’t interesting for them to play into it. Let me state that again. Players with characters standing in a vault full of gold felt that it was pointless for them to even pick up a single bag of gold. Where is the fun in that?

Obviously, players can still create characters motivated by greed, but without the incentive of gold, taking risks for treasure seems like a sucker’s bet.

At the start of season 8, I wondered with James Introcaso why the Adventurers League would introduce rules that blocked characters from keeping gold in the season that featured Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The adventure hooks characters with a chance to win a fortune in gold. James speculated that perhaps the potential windfall triggered the need for the rules change.

In How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal, I talked about how relying on a DM’s judgement rather than on extensive rules may have helped fifth edition’s popularity.

Alphastream agreed but saw areas where fourth edition succeeded in making D&D easier to run. For instance, fourth edition’s in-store play program D&D Encounters drew tons of players. “DMs loved being able to run an hour of play with 1-2 pages of very simple (and yet engaging) adventure text. Spells turned into far simpler powers meant DMs could jump in with less experience. True story: Despite playing and DMing D&D for 17 years, when 3E came out, I waited 9 months before DMing my first organized play game because I felt I didn’t know 3E spells well enough to run a game. We’ve taken a step backwards here, in that many DMs again feel they can’t DM (especially at high levels) because of the complexity of spells.

So, I think there is a balance to be struck between these design goals of keeping the game engaging and keeping it easy to learn and simple.

I would also say that while 3E really built up the game and added a lot, 4E in many ways was working to fix problems—the length of an adventuring day, the need for someone to ‘have’ to play the cleric, how many magic items a character had, and even how much experience a DM needed to feel confident. It really took the laundry list of issues, including ‘bad DMs’ and tried to fix them. The legacy of those fixes is excellent. We can see many of those improvements carried on into 5E.

In How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs, I wrote about how D&D struggled to erase the implication that half orcs came from rape. The entry became this blog’s most read and discussed post until another post topped it.

Wil cifer argued that the original implications of half orcs fit history. “Rape was a commonplace occurrence during war in medieval times. Why would a barbaric race even in a fantasy setting be kinder and gentler? Rewriting the tone of a historical time the game is based on is stupid.

But D&D is a game that gleefully tosses aside historical accuracy and realism in favor of fun. The game features magic and dragons. To unravel any D&D world, just pull any of countless threads and check it for historical accuracy or check how it stands in the face of magic.

Other readers argued that making half orcs the product of sexual violence turns orcs into stronger villains. Andrew wrote, “I have been playing D&D since 1981, and I have no problem with half-orcs being the result of an orc raping a human female. Orcs are monsters, created by an evil deity, Gruumsh. Taking the monster out of the monster has very little appeal to me. Can and should there be points of moral ambiguity in a D&D game? Without doubt. There should be. But monsters do monstrous things, including rape.

To players like Andrew, crushing evil and righting wrongs feels more satisfying when the campaign shows evil and the suffering it creates. Purely evil creatures make uncomplicated foes that justify killing.

David Streever wrote, “D&D is a fantasy game that is sold to everyone from small children to adults; you can feature as much rape as you like in your version, but I’m glad it’s not in the core books, and I’ll stay away from your table.

In your D&D game, if all the players welcome a darker tone, you can explore any origin you like for half orcs. But for a broader audience, the game benefits when it avoids saddling every half orc with a vile background.

In response to Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself, simontnm gave a suggestion. “If I have multiple NPCs talking I tend to use minis, and put my finger on the mini of the NPC actually talking.

“‘Don’t have NPCs talk to each other’ is good advice, but it’s occasionally necessary to deliver an NPC to NPC one liner. Keep it short and sweet.

The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons prompted Ty to point out the difference between good, real traps and quality traps in D&D. “From a game play standpoint, traps are just a terrible idea all around. Conceptually, in order for a trap to be a ‘good’ trap, it needs to be massively unfair. It needs to kill outright or seriously maim. One minute you’re alive, and then boom, you’re dead. No saving throws, no noticing something off at the last minute, no jumping out of the way.

Ken W replied, “You need to take the edge off your realism. A trap shouldn’t be ‘instantly lethal’ in game terms any more than a strike with a sword or great axe. In real terms, if you get hit by a swinging claymore, you are likely suffering a severe wound. But the abstraction of D&D combat and hit points means that each hit represents a depletion of stamina, not a mortal wound. Only when you reach 0 hit points does it really represent that fountaining arterial spray we would otherwise expect.

Traps operate in the same space as combat weapons in this regard. The only difference between a trap and an enemy combatant that gets a turn while the PC is surprised is…well—nothing. Except the trap essentially ‘dies’ after its turn is over.”

Good traps in the real world make lousy traps in D&D. The best traps in D&D are in places where everyone expects a trap or that show obvious signs of their presence.

Alphastream wrote, “A trap can be a lot of fun when found, if it requires engagement to disarm. As a DM or author, I try to think through the point of the trap—not just for whatever creatures put it there—but for the game experience. The trap can be hard to find and that’s fun, or it can be easy to find and be fun as well. Think of ‘only the penitent man shall pass’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s fun because you know it is there and need to figure out a way past it. Similarly, traps can be found and that can be the beginning of the engagement.

Beoric wrote, “Perfectly good traps can be suspected because the nature of the trap is not entirely concealable. Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps can be suspected because the tiles on the floor have no grout because they are pressure plates, or there are holes in the wall from which darts shoot.

The trap may also be old, and detectable by signs of wear, like a layer of powdered stone on the floor or vertical gouges on the wall for a falling block trap, or soot on the walls or floor with a fire trap, or spent missiles on the floor with a dart or arrow trap.

Also consider that some traps can be very well concealed if they are not being looked for, but still be detectable if actively searched for. A standard old-school pit trap was pretty much undetectable visually and could only be detected by tapping it.

None of those are actually bad traps. They just have limitations because of their nature.

There is a great discussion of this at the Hack and Slash Trick and Trap Index.”

Alphastream expanded on how traps worked in play across editions.

In fifth edition, it’s still not entirely clear nor standard whether Investigation or Perception is most commonly used for finding a trap. I have my thoughts, which I think are right, but I see it run many different ways. In general, I think that if a trap is one that could be seen with the naked eye, then Perception would work. For example, a pressure plate that has slightly discolored stone, or which is slightly sunken. Otherwise, and in my game this is most of the time, the trap is not obvious and needs Investigation to be found. A well-crafted pressure plate is like any other stone. The only way to find it is to tap at it or otherwise determine what it is, which uses Investigation.

Fourth edition’s concept of ‘trap as monster’ failed due to the underlying math, which assumed a check per round and 4 checks to disable the trap, which was supposed to equate how monsters were envisioned as taking 4 rounds to defeat. The problem is that this cold math doesn’t understand how that 4 round concept wasn’t very accurate—players focused fire on important targets and might take them down in 1 round, while ignoring others.

Players tended to focus fire on traps and break them more quickly than a rogue could disable them. Or players ignored traps in favor of the monsters, and then stepped around the traps.

I like to think 4E’s trap concept is still really cool, but it takes clever authoring to communicate to the players how to engage with it. It is awesome if the cleric immediately realizes that this trap is empowered by a rival deity and they can shut it down and greatly help the party by doing so. That feels really heroic. It’s awesome if the rogue can tell the party that interacting with the trap for two rounds will move the rays of lightning to the area where the enemy archers are standing. These are great cinematic concepts if you set them up right.

I tried my own hand at it with Dungeon of Doom. Nate and I designed a large variety of 5E traps in that adventure, and they provide a diversity of experiences. (You can get the adventure free and also see people play through them, all at https://dwarvenforge.com/descent/.) Thank you for putting up with the shameless plug, but it’s hopefully useful for people given this article.

For Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D, Daniel Boggs contributed fascinating D&D history that I didn’t know.

It is a quirky history, given that a primary reason ability scores were created in the first place was as a means to make ability checks—to put it in contemporary parlance. The D&D ability scores and saving throws arise as a distillation of the concept of personality traits and character skills created by Dave Arneson for Blackmoor. In pre-D&D Blackmoor, players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, or Looks, or Throwing, to see if they were successful at the attempt. When D&D came along, Arneson & co. continued to use ability checks in their games. You can see an example of a Dexterity check in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (1977) where a character must save versus Dexterity to remove their armor in time to avoid drowning in Blackmoor Bay. And of course ability checks are also very prominent in Arneson and Richard Sniders’ Adventures in Fantasy game (1978). In writing D&D, Gary Gygax failed to mention this purpose of the ability scores as he apparently preferred to create an arbitrary percent chance and have the players roll percentiles instead. So, you did have some early players who figured it out on their own or who learned it in some way from Arneson, most D&D players didn’t grok the intention behind the scores and thus you got that rather odd system proposed by Ives in Dragon #1. You can see some original Blackmoor characters here.

My post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate sparked such a furor that I posted a follow up. Many commenters took the challenge of changing my mind.

I’ve already recanted my dislike for game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.

Alphastream argues that monsters that bounce from table to table at multi-table events can work, but he sees room for innovation. “I’ve written these, though they aren’t my favorite device for the reasons you mentioned. I think they work best when they are in small pods. The blue dragon in Confrontation at Candlekeep works well because it makes sense (you have 4-6 towers and parties at each tower, the dragon flying in between), it is announced dramatically (so everyone gets the concept from the start), it is central to the action (no one is forgetting about the dragon), and it lets players interact with it once it leaves their table (they can jump on it or fire at it, at the risk of failing at their table). With the second Open I tried to create a different experience, one that still made sense and which provided a combination of combat, skill, and risk-reward. I would tweak it further if given the chance. All of that is to say that I think these can be done well. I think DM David is exactly the kind of person who could come up with a cool version and submit it to an Epic author.

I’ve grown to accept that adventures with carnival games work well as an introduction to the game. Alphastream touts another benefit. “I think carnival games can offer a lot of activity in a short time and offer something to every player. Very few things can do that.”

As for the way that using miniatures for the wrong monster sometimes confuses me, Creeper Jr wrote, “I don’t need minis to match exactly, but I find it incredibly helpful if there is some sort of rhyme and reason to it. My portable mini kit includes: 4 goblins, 4 guards, 4 archers, 2 mages, 2 knights/fighters, 2 rogues, 2 large green slaad, 2 giant spiders. Each mini has a color-coded base accent. This doesn’t take up too much room, is relatively cheap to put together, and allows us to quickly identify enemies with sort-of-thematic minis.

Alphastream supports budding mini collectors eager to put minis on the table. “Sometimes a DM wants to buy a box of minis or two and try to use that purchase for their efforts. I get that. I still think it beats Starburst, but maybe that’s because I don’t super love Starburst. If the monsters are Belgian truffles, or Ferrero Rocher, sign me up! Here again, we can imagine we are witnessing the beautiful creation of a nascent miniature collector. They will go from this table to assemble an army of awesome minis on a bed of Dwarven Forge. It’s like seeing the future unfold before us!

Josh rose to defend the dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. “I’m one of the ones who love the picture. The adventurers seem like real people, each different and interesting in his own way. The mage isn’t old. Nobody’s half dressed. The dragon’s of a size that would pose a threat to normal people and level 1’s. It’s a good level 1 accomplishment. And as for the pose, I assume there are a lot of unlisted utility spells, including one that takes the image in a caster’s mind and transfers it to paper. It’s a level 2 spell. Colored prints are level 4.

Commenters replying to How Well Do You Understand Invisibility in Dungeons & Dragons? considered a couple of odd corners of the rules for invisibility.

Dave Barton summarized one aspect. “In essence, two foes who can’t see each other have an equal chance of hitting as if they could see each other. Think about that for a minute.

This rule especially defies common sense because it grants ranged attackers just as good a chance of hitting when they can’t see their target. Sometimes D&D trades plausibility for simplicity.

Aside from the ability to hide anywhere, invisible creatures don’t get advantage to hide or any other increase to their chance of success.

Pewels asks “How would you handle light sources on a PC going invisible?

Saphhire Crook answered, “The issue of invisible light sources crosses into that dangerous territory of ‘invisible eyeballs’, which is where invisible people cannot see because their eyes cannot receive light since it passes through them.

In 3.5, light sources continue to exist, but their origin becomes invisible, implying that the target simply reflects no visible light (or all light hitting or reflecting off them is magically duplicated and filtered).”

Every so often, someone leaves a comment that delights me. My post on Dave Hargrave, Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games, inspired such a comment from Old School, New.

As a former associate of Hargrave, I’ve been around awhile and have seen innumerable articles written on the worlds of Arduin and its foothills. Many are bad, many are way too ‘fannish,’ and a lot of them are simply misinformed and/or myopically aligned with other gaming systems, to the point of zero objectivity.

This article, however, rates as the finest piece on the subject of Arduin/DH, ever. Nothing else comes close. Incredibly well written, fair, meticulous, and factual.

And you actually dug-up a pic from Different Worlds. Haha! Among other things.

Yes, Arduin wasn’t perfect. Not hardly. But it was grand, visionary, insane, stupid, ham-handed, and utterly magnificent. Kinda like its creator, right?

Anyway, massive cheers for a spectacular blog entry. I should think it’s the all-time definitive description of Arduin and its master—warts and all.

Seriously, Mr. Hartlage, you’ve created something beautiful here.

Thanks! I feed proud to garner such kind words.

In 1981 a Troll Named Grimtooth Set a Path for Today’s D&D Books

Grimtooth’s TrapsStarting 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.

Swing across chasmIn 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.

The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons

In original Dungeons & Dragons, the three brown books only include one rule for traps. “Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them.” That’s it. Except for the Find Traps spell, the rules never explain how characters can find traps. In D&D’s original play style, if you wanted to find pit traps, you just told your dungeon master how you pushed down on the floor ahead with your 10’ pole. Or you sent your hireling ahead first. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

In Book III, Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax lists a dozen tricks and traps such as slanting passages, sinking rooms, and one-way doors. All foiled a retreat from the dungeon. They threatened to make characters lose their way out, or worse, deliver them to a deeper level and more more dangerous foes. None of these traps need rules to play, just player ingenuity.

Undoubtedly, Gary had thought of other traps such as spring blades, poison needles, and warning bells, but his list conspicuously omits any traps that seem to require game-world finesse to overcome.

In the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by a gamer named Gary Schweitzer (probably Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer). “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

The thief’s limit to disabling “small trap devices” seems to exist as an attempt to confine thieves to working on traps that require a character’s game-world knowledge and dexterity. For example, a chest rigged to release deadly gas requires a thief’s game-world aptitude, and a die roll. Big traps like pits and rolling boulders, which can be beaten through player ingenuity, remain outside of the thief’s skills. Players can tell the DM the steps their characters take to bridge a pit or to chock the rolling-boulder trap.

In the summer of 1975, Gary  brought the Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention for a D&D tournament. One of the tournament’s players wrote a first-hand account of the event for issue 4 of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Even though the party includes two members of the new thief class, the Tomb offers virtually no place for them to disarm traps, and the Tomb [SPOILERS!] is loaded with traps. To determine when players get caught by traps, Gary fills the adventure with an ad-hoc system of saving throws, rolls of 1-2 on a d6, and verbal countdowns. (Player tip: If the DM begins to count down, run!) The Tomb’s legendary status comes from the mix of ingenuity, divination, and attrition required to bypass its memorable deathtraps, rather than the number of disarm checks needed. (DM Tip: if you run the Tomb and allow thieves to detect or disarm much, you’re doing it wrong. The Tomb of Tiresome Checks is a different adventure.) See Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, thieves finally gained the ability to locate traps. A low-level rogue’s odds remained dismal, quickly upstaged when the priest gains Find Traps at level 3. This thief ability implied that no one else could find traps—after all, other classes lacked a Find Traps percentage. Third edition set this limitation in the rules by allowing rogues (and only rogues) to find traps “well hidden” behind a 20 or higher Search difficulty.

The rogue or thief’s limit to finding and disarming small traps remained in second edition. “These include poisoned needles, spring blades, deadly gasses, and warning bells,” but do not include “large, mechanical traps.”

In third edition, traps gained a systematic treatment, complete with triggers, effects, and difficulty classes. The Trapfinding ability enabled rogues the chance to locate and disable anything that the DM categorizes as a trap, small or large, magical or mundane. This gave rogues more chances to shine, but heightened the tension between the traps a thief can find and disable and the traps that test player ingenuity. We have all encountered players who insist that a disable trap roll will enable their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. So does staying at home, but neither tactic leads to much fun.

When the fourth edition designers rethought D&D, they saw traps as posing two core problems:

  • Traps can frustrate players
  • Traps can slow play to tedium

Problem: Traps that challenge player ingenuity can lead to player frustration.

This problem arises when when dungeon masters limit the players to a preconceived menu of potential solutions. This approach riddles the Tomb of Horrors, which includes many predicaments that require curiously-specific recipes of spells or actions to escape.

In Traps!, fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.” For example, Tomb of Horrors. See Player skill without player frustration.

Problem: Traps can slow play to tedium.

Regarding the problem of slow play, Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “The ‘right’ way to play the game was to slowly and laboriously search each 10-foot square of dungeon before you set foot on it, or to use magic that made traps completely pointless. Neither option was much fun.”

Radney-MacFarland never mentions that old-school traps require wandering monsters or some other time pressure to avoid grinding the game to a halt. Of course, if time pressure denied characters the chance to look for the trap that killed them, the hazard seems arbitrary and unfair. See Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

Radney-MacFarland admits designers thought about “disappearing” traps from the game, but decided to try fixing them first.

The fourth-edition design sought to fix the problem of frustrated players by eliminating traps that only challenge player ingenuity. “We wanted to expand the ways in which you could counter a trap. Much like figuring out that sometimes you wanted other skills to allow a character to recognize a trap’s threat, we made an effort to design traps that could be countered with an interesting skill uses.” Skill checks became the core mechanic for resolving traps. The game invited dungeon masters to allow as many different skills as plausible so everyone could share the fun of making skill checks.

Many players prefer traps that require ingenuity to overcome, because such challenges make the players’ decisions matter in the game world. But not all players favor this play style. The fourth edition design aimed to please players who insisted that a disable trap roll enabled their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. Still, the designers recognized that turning traps into a cause for skill checks failed to offer enough fun, so they redesign went farther.

“Most traps work best when they ‘replace’ a monster in a combat encounter, or serve as a hazard equally threatening to both sides.” In fourth edition, traps become a sort of stationary monster that the characters can disable or attack. Like monsters, traps make attacks, grant experience, and have solo and elite varieties. In this new concept, traps add spice to combat encounters, allow rogues to strut their skills, and target monsters as well as players—a new tactical element.

Radney-MacFarland writes, “Don’t fret, rogue fans. That class and other characters trained in Thievery are still the party’s best hope to shut down traps quickly and well.” But fourth-edition rogues soon learned to approach traps like everyone else, by attacking. Fourth-edition rogues inflict so much damage that a series of thievery checks always took longer than just attacking a battlefield trap.

Justifying battlefield traps

In the game world, the battlefield trap always seemed hard to justify. I pity dungeon builders stupid enough to bother enchanting, say, an automatic-crossbow trap rather than an iron defender or other construct. Unlike constructs, traps (a) cannot move, (b) can be disabled, and (c) will attack your guards as well as intruders. The dungeon builder’s henchmen, hired to fight alongside their master’s indiscriminate death machines, should look for a job at a better class of dungeon.

The fourth-edition approach to traps never proved as satisfying as hoped. As the edition evolved, we saw a gradual return to classic traps, even with all their problems.

Fifth-edition traps

Although complex traps revisit the good ideas from fourth edition’s battlefield traps, most fifth-edition traps recall the ones from before fourth edition. The rules offer advice for avoiding the problems with traps. “Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one.”

Just like thieves in D&D’s original game, fifth-edition rogues lack any special ability to find traps. Now, to find a trap, any character can attempt a Wisdom (Perception) check. The rules specifically allow players to find traps by looking in the right places. “You should allow a character to discover a trap without making an ability check if an action would clearly reveal the trap’s presence. For example, if a character lifts a rug that conceals a pressure plate, the character has found the trigger and no check is required.”

Depending on the trap, the best way to disarm may be a Dexterity or Strength check, but player ingenuity often works. “As with many situations, you shouldn’t allow die rolling to override clever play and good planning.” If disarming a device requires a check, the rogue’s proficiency with thieves tools can help.

Ironically, rogues rarely have high Wisdom, so they rate as bad at finding traps. Lucky for today’s rogues, the class pivoted from unlock-and-disarm specialists to hidden snipers. See The Thief’s Strange Trip From Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Game mastering advice tends to lavish attention on what players enjoy. Things like playing a role, enjoying a sense of power, plotting strategies, and so on.

Another pleasure of role-playing games ranks just as high, even though the folks who offer game mastering advice rarely mention it.

Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world. Humans love finding order in a jumble. The impulse drives scientists, detectives, and conspiracy theorists.

In Dungeons & Dragons, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions—call them traps and toys.

The joy of figuring things out led to a type of adventure that didn’t exist during the first years of role playing. Investigation adventures now rank as one of the most popular styles. Much of the fun of an investigation or mystery comes from connecting the dots between clues. The challenges come along the way.

For example, players investigating missing magical reagents might start with the guild alchemist. He stole the reagents to help a secret lover out of a jam. Under pressure, the alchemist explains that his lover hasn’t been seen since getting the reagents, but that the couple used to meet at an particular inn. This leads to the innkeeper, who saw someone with the lover’s description meeting with someone wearing a flower that only grows at the royal arboretum. One clue leads to the next. Investigations ask player to make connections and figure things out.

Before investigations, player still found pleasure in figuring things out. Tomb of Horrors is packed with things to figure out. Taunting clues, secret doors, false endings, and so on. This abundance leads to some of the Tomb’s lasting appeal. But the tomb also set a terrible example.

In the Tomb, players figure things out to advance or to survive. Too often, D&D adventures have forced players to figure out puzzles to continue. For example, countless adventures include a magic portal that requires just the right activation to open. If players fail to figure out the key, they reach a dead end. Or in the case of the Tomb, they’re dead, the end. About everything in the Tomb works that way.

This sort of design gave puzzles—D&D’s original thing to figure out—a bad rap. No one likes to feel stuck or frustrated or stupid.

To avoid such bad feelings, fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. They aimed for a D&D game where no player felt forced to figure anything out. Accidentally, they nearly lost a source of fun.

Nonetheless, adventures that force players to solve a puzzle risk a bad D&D session. But players still love to figure things out, and the best adventures give them lots of chances to indulge—if the players like.

When you create adventures, rather than forcing players to puzzle out something that blocks their way, add more toys to figure out. For instance, imagine a magic fountain that the players can ignore. Scattered coins lie under its clear water. A bag of coins hangs from a hook. Tossing in a coin causes the waters to cloud and show a room somewhere. At the far end stands a statue of a king. The vision fades. Dropping a second coin reveals the same room from a different angle. This time a statue of a queen faces the viewer. Players can move on, but interacting with the puzzle reveals something interesting to figure out.

Fun adventures come sprinkled with things to figure out.

The best traps challenge players to figure something out. Puzzle traps hint at their presence. The fun comes from either deciphering clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they figure out the game-world steps required to avoid the threat.

I used to think that the fun of figuring things out came from the thrill of beating a difficult puzzle. The harder the challenge, the greater the thrill of victory. I was wrong. Part of the fun of figuring things out comes from feeling smart and successful. When players stall on a confounding problem, they just feel thwarted. The best puzzles serve just enough challenge so players suppose that they succeeded where others might fail.

Examining the coins reveals the faces of kings and queens. When the players toss in the queen’s coin, they see the king’s statue, and vice versa. Any party could figure out the fountain’s operation, especially if tossing another coin reveals a familiar place. Casting a coin temporarily reveals a view from a royal statue depicting the figure on the coin. Still, figuring out the fountain will bring fun.

Once players figure things out, they appreciate rewards that validate their success. Sometimes insight leads to treasure or an easier encounter. At first, the alchemist pretends to know nothing of the missing reagents, but if the players find a hidden love letter and make the connection, he cracks. That fountain could reveal some secrets in the adventure ahead.

In investigations, figuring advances the plot, but the same joy can come from spotting and making connections that don’t affect an outcome. Movie Easter eggs bring this pleasure.

The chance to figure things out provides a painless way to deliver backstory to the players—if they care. Start with the story and add ways to reveal it to the players. Avoid using journal entries. Think of subtler clues that reveal history in bite-size chunks. In Tomb of Annihilation, the Garden of Nangalore reveals its story in clues scattered throughout the site. Success here even leads to a reward: At the end, players who figure out the story can fare better when they meet the queen.

The next time you dream up an adventure, add things for your group’s actors and tacticians, but also add something to figure out.

Fourth Edition Proved D&D Works Without Saving Throws, So Why Did They Come Back?

Fourth edition dropped saving throws in favor of to-hit rolls and showed that D&D works without saves.

Mathematically, to-hit rolls and saving throws just flip the numbers so that a high roll benefits the person casting the die. Rather than having a lightning bolt trigger saves, why not just let wizards make lightning attacks against their targets? Why not just have poison attack a character’s fortitude?

By dropping saving throws, the fourth-edition designers eliminated a redundant mechanic. The change added consistency and elegance to D&D. Wizards finally got to cast spells and to make attack rolls.

If banishing saving throws made D&D more elegant, why did fifth edition bring them back? After all, the fifth-edition designers made elegance a key goal for their design. See From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance.

Until fourth edition, saving throws survived based on tradition and feel.

The tradition dates to when Tony Bath had toy soldiers saving verses arrows. (See my last post.) The fifth-edition designers aimed to capture tradition, but also the best qualities of earlier editions. Why not capture some of the elegant design of fourth edition?

The feel comes from a sense that the player controlling the most active character should roll the dice. D&D could drop to-hit rolls in favor of saves versus swords, but that feels wrong. On the other hand, characters seem active when they resist a charm, shake off a ghoul’s paralysis, or spring away from rushing flames. Sure, a wizard is saying magic words, a dragon is exhaling, but the action focuses on the heroes escaping the flames.

Plus, the saving throw mechanic tends to send a few more rolls to the players. Players like to roll dice, especially when the roll decides their character’s fate. When attack rolls replaced saving throws, spellcasters got to make more attack rolls, but most characters lack spells. Without saving throws, players flamed by dragon breath never get to take fate in their hands and roll a save. Instead, they just subtract damage.

So saving throws returned to D&D.

If saving throws and attack rolls share a common place in the game, what makes them different from each other?

As a dungeon master, have you ever asked a player dodging a trap’s darts to make a dexterity or reflex save? I have. I handled it wrong. Don’t fault me too much. A save gives a character a chance to escape. Characters springing away from darts or scything blades or falling stones seem to deserve a save. But that intuition is wrong. Such traps should make attacks. The Dungeon Master’s Guide never spells out this distinction.

Just as the reflex defense and AC in fourth edition defended against different sorts of attacks, in fifth edition, dexterity saves and armor class apply to different hazards. The difference comes from armor. D&D’s lead designer Mike Mearls explains that to determine whether to use an attack roll or a save, ask “Would a suit of plate mail protect from this?” Armor protects against darts, scythes, and so on, so traps using such hazards make attacks. Poisonous fumes, lightning, and mind blasts all ignore armor, so targets make saves. I would rather face a fireball protected by plate, but the rules emphasize the agility needed to escape the flames.

Originally, Tony Bath’s saving throws represented the value of armor. Now, saving throws only apply when armor can’t help.

Mearls confesses that the D&D rules don’t always make this save-or-attack distinction consistently. Plate mail certainly protects against falling rocks, and the falling-rock traps in the third-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide all make attacks. But the falling-rock traps in Lost Mine of Phandelver prompt dexterity saves. Better to leap from harm’s way, I suppose.

One area of inconsistency irks me.

Why should plate armor protect against the incorporeal, life-draining touch of creatures like specters and wraiths? Here, tradition and feel led the D&D designers to use attack rolls in a place where saving throws make more sense. If insubstantial creatures forced a target to make a dexterity saving throw, their life draining would imitate third edition’s touch attacks without a single extra rule. Plus, these undead would play like more distinct and interesting threats. Forget the feel of a to-hit roll, incorporeal creatures should force saving throws.

Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Look at things

Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons emphasized combat encounters at the expense of role playing and exploration. The Dungeon Master’s Guide encouraged, “Move the PCs quickly from encounter to encounter and on to the fun!” (p.105) Not-fun aspects of the 4E game included overlooking treasure the PCs needed to keep pace with the game’s math, and failing to spot clues leading to the next encounter. In 4E, no one needed to find the fun because adventures put everything in plain sight, or at least within reach of a group perception check. As I wrote in “Is it noticed? How to run alertness,” if everyone can attempt a perception check, someone invariably succeeds.

magnifying glassThis approach trained players to chase obvious leads without examining anything. Meanwhile, DMs wind up hinting that someone might want to check the bodies because apparently the loot doesn’t just drop from your kills video-game style.

The fifth edition designers recognized that exploration makes as big a part of D&D as combat. Clues and treasure may be hidden. You have to look for them, and you must tell the DM where you look. The basic rules say, “In most cases, you need describe where you are looking in order for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” Do not step into a room, make a great perception roll, and assume you found everything. Instead, look for interesting features, and tell the DM that you want to examine them.

Hidden traps make a return too.

Back in “Fourth edition gives traps a new design,” I described how 4E attempted to replace old-school traps with battlefield traps that worked like monsters—immobile, indiscriminate monsters. Although a few hidden traps slipped into the 4E game, they dealt inconsequential damage. As you move from fourth to fifth, you may be surprised, and killed, by the deadly snares hidden in fifth-edition adventures. Forget about blundering from room to room until the dungeon master launches a skill challenge or drops a battlemap. Start by checking for traps in obvious places such as doors, chests, and the jewel eyes of demon idols. Hint: In adventures published so far, kobolds and goblins favor trapped passageways and stairs.

Puzzle traps

In my previous post, I introduced gotcha traps, the first of my two categories of traps. This post reveals my second category.

puzzle traps

While characters must search for gotcha traps, puzzle traps always come with clues that signal their presence. With puzzle traps, the fun comes from either deciphering the clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. The details of these traps matter. Because puzzle traps exist as tests of player ingenuity rather than character skill, the party’s rogue probably lacks any special advantage. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they work out the game-world steps required to circumvent the threat. For more on the sort of game-world problem solving encouraged by puzzle traps, see my post, “Player skill without player frustration.”

Puzzle traps work like other obstacles that demand player ingenuity to bypass, but they bear an extra burden to be fair because of the danger to the characters. If an ordinary obstacle proves inscrutable, the game just slows until the players go another way—or the dungeon master has something come through the sealed door from the other side.

On the other hand, the stronger the warning signs that accompany a trap, the more you can increase the trap’s peril. If the players find a gem surround by a ring of blasted corpses, they will accept a certain lethality. Everyone loves to see a reckless instigator get zapped.

“Something about that gem just seems a little off to me.”

“Gee guys, something about that gem just seems a little off to me.”

To make puzzle traps work in the game, players must see evidence of their presence. Include clues that hint about the traps. Make the clues just subtle enough so the players either feel clever for figuring things or chagrined because they missed all the hints that now seem obvious. The last thing you want is players feeling they’re characters are dying because the DM wants to prove his superior ability to add arbitrary traps that kill characters.

sigil of levitationFor example, if the players spot a shaft going up with spikes at the top, they will fairly expect a trap that flings them up using, say, a sigil of levitation. But if the shaft is covered by a hidden trapdoor and players only find the smashed helmet of the last guy to crash up, the clue rates as too obscure.

Trap builders seldom advertise their work, but clues can come for other sources:

  • Earlier explorers leave signs that a trap has been triggered or bypassed. For example, the characters enter a room with spikes driven into the stone walls at ankle height. When triggered, the bottom of the floor opens to a pit. The spikes gave prior explorers a place to stand.
  • Disabled, tripped, or obvious examples of a trap appear earlier in the dungeon, revealing tell-tale signs of similar traps later on. For example, statues of warriors poised with real weapons line a passage. Midway down the passage, a decapitated skeleton reveals the two statues rigged to swing their swords. Later, the party finds a similarly decorated passage, but this time the trap triggers two statues bearing crossbows.
  • Maps, rumors, or hints reach the players from earlier expeditions or from other dungeon residents. These sorts of clues can bring social skills underground. Can the players trust a captive to lead them past a trap, or to lead them into one?
  • The dungeon’s builders built in puzzles or clues to test intruders’ cunning. For example, the entrance hall of the Tomb of Horrors includes a lengthy clue written into the floor. (Too bad Acererak’s obfuscated, ambiguous clues are almost as likely to send characters to doom as to success. Do avoid anything green though.)
  • Current denizens left evidence of the methods they use to bypass a trap. For example, players wade through a partially flooded passage and find a broad plank near a door. Unknown to the players, the door opens onto an unflooded stairway down. Opening the door causes a rush of water to sweep the the players down the stairs. Before opening the door, the dungeon’s inhabitants block the water by setting the plank across the bottom of the door, and then they step over the plank.
  • The trap gives signs of arming arming before it triggers. For example, someone steps on a floor tile and hears an audible click. This forces the rest of the party to search for a way to disarm or avoid the trap before the unlucky character raises a foot.

Usually, with puzzle traps, using the clues to decipher the nature of the trap leads to fairly simple countermeasures. Don’t stand there. Don’t touch that. But sometimes evading a trap can present as much of a puzzle as finding it. For example, consider my reverse pit, with the upward shaft and the sigil of levitation. To bypass the trap’s obstacle, players might need to secure someone with a rope to be raised to a passage half way up the shaft.

As I wrote this post, I scoured some classic, trap-filled dungeons looking for examples of the sort of puzzle traps that I recommend. Even though the classics served as my inspiration, I found few examples that suited my principles. Are my standards for trap design overly high? What published adventures contain puzzle traps such as the ones I recommend?

Related: Ars Lundi did a post on traps that reaches some of the same conclusions as I do. In the post, Ben Robbins calls the two categories zap traps and interactive traps. I like his term of “interactive traps” better than my term “puzzle traps.”

Gotcha traps

Return to Undermountain trapLongtime 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

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.

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

When the fourth edition designers rethought D&D, they saw traps as posing two core problems:

  • Traps can frustrate players
  • Traps can slow play to tedium

Problem: Traps that challenge player ingenuity can lead to player frustration.

This problem arises when when dungeon masters limit the players to a preconceived menu of potential solutions. This approach riddles the Tomb of Horrors, which includes many predicaments that require curiously-specific recipes of spells or actions to escape.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

  • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
  • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
  • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
  • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
  • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
  • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
  • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
  • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that?

Despite creating these odd recipes, Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow an unexpected solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary writes the following: “In one tournament use of the setting, a team managed to triumph by using the crown and scepter found earlier as the ultimate tool against the demilich. As Acererak’s skull levitated, one PC set said crown firmly upon the bony pate; another tapped the regal adornment with the ‘wrong’ end of the scepter. Poof! Scratch one demilich, and give the tournament’s first place to the innovative team of players who thought of this novel solution. Russ Stambaugh, the DM for the group, was stunned. ‘Could that work?’ he asked. I shrugged, admitted I certainly hadn’t thought of it and  that it was a stroke of genius that deserved a reward.

In Traps!, fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.” For example, Tomb of Horrors.

I explored this subject in my post, “Player skill without player frustration.”

Problem: Traps can slow play to tedium.

Regarding the problem of slow play, Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “The ‘right’ way to play the game was to slowly and laboriously search each 10-foot square of dungeon before you set foot on it, or to use magic that made traps completely pointless. Neither option was much fun.”

Radney-MacFarland never mentions that old-school traps require wandering monsters or some other time pressure to avoid grinding the game to a halt. Of course, if time pressure denied characters the chance to look for the trap that killed them, the hazard seems arbitrary and unfair.

I wrote about this subject in my post, “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.”

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

Radney-MacFarland admits designers thought about “disappearing” traps from the game, but decided to try fixing them first.

The 4E design sought to fix the problem of frustrated players by eliminating traps that only challenge player ingenuity. “We wanted to expand the ways in which you could counter a trap. Much like figuring out that sometimes you wanted other skills to allow a character to recognize a trap’s threat, we made an effort to design traps that could be countered with an interesting skill uses.” Skill checks became the core mechanic for resolving traps. The game invited dungeon masters to allow as many different skills as plausible so everyone could share the fun of making skill checks.

Most players prefer traps that require ingenuity to overcome, because such challenges make the players’ decisions matter in the game world. But not all players favor this play style. Remember that player who insisted that a disable trap roll enables their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge? He may have grown up to be a 4E designer. Still, the designers recognized that turning traps into a cause for skill checks failed to offer enough fun, so they redesign went farther.

“Most traps work best when they ‘replace’ a monster in a combat encounter, or serve as a hazard equally threatening to both sides.” In 4E, traps become a sort of stationary monster that the characters can disable or attack. Like monsters, traps make attacks, grant experience, and have solo and elite varieties. In this new concept, traps add spice to combat encounters, allow rogues to strut their skills, and target monsters as well as players—a new tactical element.

Radney-MacFarland writes, “Don’t fret, rogue fans. That class and other characters trained in Thievery are still the party’s best hope to shut down traps quickly and well.” But fourth-edition rogues soon learned to approach traps like everyone else, by attacking. Fourth-edition rogues inflict so much damage that a series of thievery checks always took longer than just attacking a battlefield trap.

Justifying battlefield traps

In the game world, the battlefield trap always seemed hard to justify. I pity dungeon builders stupid enough to bother enchanting, say, an automatic-crossbow trap rather than an iron defender or other construct. Unlike constructs, traps (a) cannot move, (b) can be disabled, and (c) will attack your guards as well as intruders. The dungeon builder’s henchmen, hired to fight alongside their master’s indiscriminate death machines, should look for a job at a better class of dungeon.

Faced with justifying battlefield traps, adventure writers opted to make them target player characters, but now they just played like monsters—ineffective, immobile monsters.

The 4E approach to traps never proved as satisfying as hoped. As the edition evolved, we saw a gradual return to classic traps, even with all their problems.

Next: I separate traps into two categories: gotcha traps and puzzle traps.

A history of traps in Dungeons & Dragons

In original Dungeons & Dragons, the three brown books only include one rule for traps. “Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them.” That’s it. The rules never explain how characters can find traps without resorting to magic. This lone rule works with the early play style. If you wanted to find pit traps, you just told your dungeon master how you pushed down on the floor ahead with your 10’ pole. Or you sent your hireling ahead first.

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

In traditional D&D play, players rely almost entirely on their ingenuity to overcome traps and other obstacles in the game. Most players enjoy this style of play because their own observations, judgement, and decisions matter in the game world. If we preferred random chance and freedom from decisions, we would play Candyland.

In Book III, Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax lists a dozen tricks and traps such as slanting passages, sinking rooms, and one-way doors. All foil mapping or freedom of movement, and none need rules to play, just player ingenuity.

Undoubtedly, Gary had thought of other traps such as spring blades, poison needles, and warning bells, but his list conspicuously omits any traps that seem to require game-world dexterity or knowledge to overcome.

In the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by a gamer named Gary Schweitzer (probably Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer). “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” See Gygax’s “The Thief Addition” (1974) for more. In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

The thief’s limit to disabling “small trap devices” seems to exist as an attempt to confine thieves to working on traps that require a character’s game-world knowledge and dexterity. For example, a chest rigged to release deadly gas requires a thief’s game-world finesse, and a die roll. Big traps like pits and rolling boulders, which can be beaten through player ingenuity, remain outside of the thief’s skills. Players can tell the DM the steps their characters take to bridge a pit or to chock the rolling-boulder trap.

In the summer of 1975, Gary Gygax brought the Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention for a D&D tournament. One of the tournament’s players wrote a first-hand account of the event for issue 4 of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Even though the party includes two members of the new thief class, the Tomb offers virtually no place for them to disarm traps, and the Tomb [SPOILERS!] is loaded with traps. To determine when players get caught by traps, Gary fills the adventure with an ad-hoc system of saving throws, rolls of 1-2 on a d6, and verbal countdowns. (Player tip: If the DM begins to count down, run!) The Tomb’s legendary status comes from the mix of ingenuity, divination, and attrition required to bypass its memorable deathtraps, rather than the number of disarm checks needed. (DM Tip: if you run the Tomb and allow thieves to detect or disarm much, you’re doing it wrong. The Tomb of Tiresome Checks is a different adventure.)

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, thieves finally gained the ability to locate traps. A low-level rogue’s odds remained dismal, quickly upstaged when the priest gains Find Traps at level 3.

The rogue or thief’s limit to finding and disarming small traps remained in second edition. “These include poisoned needles, spring blades, deadly gasses, and warning bells,” but do not include “large, mechanical traps.”

In third edition, traps gained a systematic treatment, complete with triggers, effects, and difficulty classes.

By third edition, the trapfinding ability enabled rogues the chance to locate and disable anything that the DM categorizes as a trap, small or large, magical or mundane. This gave rogues more chances to shine, but heightened the tension between the traps a thief can find and disable and the traps that test player ingenuity. We have all encountered players who insist that a disable trap roll will enable their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. So does staying at home, but neither tactic leads to much fun.

Next: Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons invents a new kind of trap.