I’ve always had difficulty using traps. This trouble stems from the reward to work ratio. As a Dungeon Master, I don’t want to invest a lot of time into a trap, because there’s a good chance that it will do nothing. The rogue will come along, spot the trap, disable it, and the party will continue. Sometimes, that’s okay. After a while, it’s annoying, because the amount of time it takes me to create a scenario involving a trap is much longer than the average time it takes the players to overcome a trap.
Then there’s the problem of resources. A trap typically expends few of the party’s resources. It might do a bit of damage, but unless it’s dealing damage equal to a character’s hit points, it’s just a speed bump. And not one of those axel-breaking speed bumps like you find in elderly communities; these are like wimpy parking lot speed bumps. I think the problem with traps in 4E is that we applied a mindset from earlier editions to traps without recognizing that traps needed to evolve with the rest of the game. In a game where healing and hit points are more abundant, a trap has to be dangerous without becoming overly complicated.
Unfortunately, the design tendency has been to complicate traps, creating elaborate attack powers or complicated means of disabling them. A trap in a combat encounter usually occupies a strange space: It’s annoying, but it’s not enough of a threat to merit spending the multiple standard actions it takes to disable it. What rogue wants to spend three turns disabling a trap when he or she can be backstabbing monsters for oodles of damage? Not many.
Of course, you could apply one of my standard rules, which is that a skill challenge in combat should rarely require standard actions from characters unless those checks have the potential to change the battle vastly¬—recruiting an NPC to your side, for example. I don’t really think that’s the answer, though.
Traps, in my mind, have always put more pressure on the DM than monsters. First, he or she has to remember the trap. How many times have your PCs walked past a trap and you forgot it was there? Then, once the trap is detected, either because it’s been sprung or spotted, a DM has to adapt to the wild ideas the players come up with bypassing it. All of these problems are getting at a new way of running traps that I tried this weekend.
The characters were in the Shattered Temple of the dead god Aoskar, beneath the streets of Sigil. The dungeon was riddled with puzzles and traps, and they came across a statue of a gorgon in a small, 15-foot-by-15-foot room. As soon as an adventurer stepped in, the trap was sprung, and the gorgon’s nostrils started spewing poisonous gas.
After a quick description of what happened, I pointed at the player to my left and said quickly: “What do you do?”
We didn’t roll initiative. I didn’t allow them to appraise the room beyond what they’d observed upon entering it. I took a page out of the old-school video-game style dungeon that Chatty DM and DavetheGame ran at Gen Con. The player didn’t really get to ask questions or elaborate on what they did. As soon as a person told me what his or her character did, I asked for the appropriate skill roll, if any, quickly described the result, and moved on to the next player.
When we had gone around the entire table, I made an attack against each of the characters: Level + 3 vs. Fortitude; 20 poison damage. To instill the sense of drama and urgency, I didn’t get too wrapped up in rolling damage or adding effects. It was just damage, but as they soon learned, that damage was escalating each round.
The result of all this was one of the best traps (albeit, one of the few) that I’ve run in D&D. It caused some creative thinking on the parts of the players—one of the characters created a small portal that caused the gas to spill out elsewhere. Another character tried to plug the nostrils with her fist. Others tried more traditional tactics, attempting to disable the trap or search for a way out of the room.
Adding the time component made the trap exciting and threatening. The immediacy of the threat caused the trap to mix up the pacing of the adventure. A trap like this one is difficult to convey in a stat block. I sketched out this dungeon in the hour before my game, and the trap was little more than a couple scribbled notes about a gorgon statue and a poison trap. Keeping that flexibility is more important in traps than monsters. Monsters have a lot of options; they are thinking creatures that can adapt to the characters. Most traps aren’t. They require you, the DM, to think of complications on the fly, and to allow the players to come up with creative solutions.
Finally, while I’m on the topic of traps: If you haven’t seen it yet, Rodney Thompson’s Dark Sun article this month in Dungeon spoiled one of our new formats, which is going to be showing up in the Dungeon Master’s Kit this month. Jeremy Crawford and I worked to streamline the trap format to make it read a little more like a monster. With luck, that will make everyone a little more inclined to use traps and explore their potential.