Although Dungeons and Dragons is and has always focused a lot of its energy, both in the rules and at the table, around combat, battles are not the sole challenge inherent in the game — even the most kick-in-the-door style play. Next to battles with goblins and specters and (of course) dragons, nefarious tricks, traps and other trouble have always played a large role in D&D. And while 5th Edition is no different, it would seem by reading the Lost Mine of Phandelver Starter Set adventure or the Hoard of the Dragon Queen mega-module that traps are limited to pts and tripwires, tricks are limited to secret doors and there’s little more troublesome than some odd fungi. It may be understandable to try and convey simple concepts like falling damage and the “poisoned” condition in introductory products, but I think it leaves the wrong impression: Dungeon Masters, newbies in particular, might not realize that traps, tricks and trouble are where they (as opposed to the game designers) really get to shine. These elements of adventure design are pure, malevolent creativity molded like clay into jaw dropping surprises and sweat-beading-on-the-brow tension, at least if they are done right.
What, What and What?
Let’s first define traps, tricks and trouble:
Traps are elements that are likely to cause some form of harm to the player characters, usually in the form of damage or other ill effects, that were engineered by some force within the context of the game world. This could be members of a lowly kobold tribe or the very God of Trapmakers herself.Traps might be mechanical or magical. They might be easily bypassed or terribly complex. In any case, a trap was created with an intent to harm.
Tricks are similar to traps except that they are not necessarily designed to cause harm and may in fact be beneficial in some way (and are often both). Like traps, tricks were designed and implemented by some force within the game world, though the original use of the trick may be far from what purpose it fills in the context of the adventure. For example, a fountain that changes the skin color of any who drink from it may serve as little more than a fun trick now, but when it was enchanted thousands of years before it might have been used as an oracle, with different colors associated with different astrological signs or fates.
Trouble, as I define it here, is a trap or a trick that was not created with intent within the context of the game world. A ceiling that collapses when a wire is tripped is a trap; a ceiling that caves in when a loud noise is made (ex: any thunder spell) is a trouble. Likewise, a sleep fountain in the temple of the God of Dreams is a trick, but a similar fountain located where the Prime and the Dreamlands touch is a trouble. This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but it does actually matter: engaged players will often note and even attempt to follow up on the story details traps, tricks and trouble add, and DMs who take a moment to consider those details will have a leg up in meeting that player expectation.
Bad Traps, Tricks and Trouble
First thing is first: it is important to define what kinds of traps, tricks and trouble are not good, that either slow down the game or create the wrong kind of tension (i.e. between the DM and the players). When done poorly, traps, tricks and trouble can derail a game session or even an entire campaign, create feelings of frustration and unfairness, and result in actual real world interpersonal issues(if you scoff at this, consider how intimate RPGs are: we not only allow other people into our daydreams but willingly give them the opportunity to screw them up). Even in the best case scenario, poorly designed traps, tricks and trouble are boring, adding nothing to the play experience and eating up valuable play time.
There are many ways this poor design can express itself, but here are a few basic categories:
They’re Irrelevant: Relevance is a dodgy aspect, especially in the sort of open world sandbox adventures D&D is so good at, but in this context it means that the trap, trick or trouble is meaningless. Whether the player characters overcome it or even encounter it at all makes no difference, either on a game play level (treasure or experience points, for example) or on a story level (it doesn’t say anything about the scenario or world at large). The falling rock trap in a dead end passageway is a perfect example of an irrelevant trap.
They’re Arbitrary: Player’s like agency, the ability to make meaningful, informed decisions for their characters that have consequences. Arbitrary traps, tricks and trouble rob the players of this agency by removing the element of meaningful and informed choice. Traps with no forewarning and/or that are impossible to bypass, which usually result in an unavoidable consequence or which can only be avoided by blind luck, are arbitrary in this context.
They’re Uninspired: By itself, there are few things more boring than a pit trap in a hallway. Even more elaborate and complex traps, tricks and trouble can feel uninspired if they have become an overused trope. Creativity can be a hard point to nail down, but use this rule of thumb: if the trap appeared in any Indiana Jones movie, either change it up to make it more original or leave it out entirely (unless, of course, you have players you are sure have never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which case use that rolling boulder!).
There are, of course, corner case examples of all sorts of bad traps, tricks and trouble, but those three broad categories cover the majority of problem examples, I think.
Next week, I will discuss what makes a good trap, trick or trouble, and produce a number of examples. As an aside, I missed Magical Monday this week simply because the idea I had and began work on turned out to be too cool rush through. Expect awesomesauce come next Monday!