Tag Archives: 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.

Looking back at Grimtooth’s Traps

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; all were unusable in play.

Adding an extra mechanism—no matter how clever—to increase the lethality of a trap doesn’t add to the fun. It sends the players looking for a new dungeon master.

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—presumably, the flying, exploding air sharks from Arduin.

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 in outrageous traps, only to reappear, without explanation, for the next scene.

By the fourth volume, Grimtooth’s Traps Ate, the series authors had abandoned any pretense that these traps might see play. Now the traps include dungeon basketball courts with mechanical arms that slam duck characters, and deadly Christmas-themed rooms that kill adventurers wearing Santa suits. (Why is volume 4 Traps Ate? The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 7 lack homonyms, so they were skipped.)

As long as you do not dare using any of Grimtooth’s traps in play, you can enjoy the collections by chuckling over their wicked engineering. Here the Addams Family meets Rube Goldberg.