What’s a good trap? + Crown of Negativity

Into the Trap

I’ve been flipping through Grimtooth’s Ultimate Traps Collection, which is huge and full of ideas, just as perverse one than the last, but not as easy to use without some preparation work (some traps are one or two full pages long, and include diagrams; you can’t read that mid-session, you need to learn how the trap works before the game starts).

I also have been thiking about what Chris McDowall means when he says traps should be obvious:

Then he gives two examples:

This means there are no passive rolls to detect traps, but also that the player doesn’t need to actively search for traps (making the referee specific questions) to detect them.

Does it mean that characters in Into the Odd automatically detect traps? It seem so. So traps are fun not because they can harm the characters, are they fun, then, because characters can trump them? I am not sure Chris McDowall implies that, but it’s unlikey he means the opposite.

When I write a dungeon, I always want to add some traps but I always struggle to make interesting traps that are fun not matter if they are activated or bypassed. It’s not a easy job. What’s a good trap?

In this entry, he lists 34 traps and says these are the rules to make a good trap:

  • At least one part of it is immediately visible.
  • It allows interaction and investigation.
  • It has impactful consequences for the victim.

Let’s see a few:

  • Metal sword audibly humming, hooked up to electric charge.
  • Green Devil Face with gaping mouth. Anything going into the mouth is annihilated.
  • A fishing rod propped up and cast into a lake. The rod is covered in fast-acting glue and tension on the line triggers a springboard beneath the victim, casting them into the lake.

If you touch the sword, you suffer damage. To remove it, you should wear special gloves or find a way to cut the charge. But that’s a lot of trouble for a sword. That trap is there just to deal some damage to a character, it’s not a trap you would want to overcome, you simple don’t touch it.

If you enter the gaping mouth, you die. No save vs death roll, no nothing. You die. Sounds harsh but no sane person would enter a gaping mouth like that, right? Well, no sane person would be exploring dungeons, either. This trap is put there just to fuck the players, to teach them you must not interact with the features of the dungeon, or at elast, not with every feature, specially if it is a green devil face.

The fishing rod is another “fuck you” trap.

Unavoidable traps, then. Except, that is not really the case.

This article, and Into the Odd, assume, or at least expect, for the players to inspect the metal sword, the devil face and the fishing rod BEFORE they interact with them.

When a player inspects the sword (At least one part of it is immediately visible), she must explain what her character does, exactly (It allows interaction and investigation). If it makes sense, the referee then grants her the information about the trap. If the character makes something that triggers the trap (“I put a finger on the tip of the hilt”, “I enter the hole and go to sleep; it’s getting late”), she suffers the effects of the trap, electric discharge or sudden and instant death (It has impactful consequences for the victim). No rolls are made, other than damage.

In other words, a trap is triggered automatically if a character interacts with it incorrectly.

Sounds hardcore, but since rolls to detect traps aren’t required, it’s actually pretty easy to spot the trap. That’s not the important part. The important part is choosing between finding a way to disable the trap or just ignore it and move on.

So far, so good. It works well in a game like Into the Odd, which is pretty minimalistic and everything runs fast, and which most people seem to consider better for one-shots and short adventures, not for long-term campaigns (understandable since the game offers little concerning advancement mechanics and benefits).

Does it work for more traditional, Moldvayian (or Gygaxian) games?

Enter BX and Old-School Essentials

OSE, following BX, states that

Using the same examples from before, the sword and the rod are triggered by touching them, and the devil face is triggered by entering its gaping mouth. But traps don’t trigger automatically. When a character makes an action that would trigger the trap, the referee must roll 1d6, and if it comes up 1 or 2, the trap works; otherwise, it doesn’t work against that specific character. Other characters making a triggering action require their own 1d6 checks.

If we follow Moldvay’s steps closely, then there’s another problem:

Let’s obviate for the moment that only Thieves can detect and disable “treasure traps”, which is the name Moldvay and OSE give them, but which not necessarily are traps found in treasure items; Moldvay also simply refers to them as “small traps”, and the example given is a lock.

Anyway. Are these room or treasure traps?

The green devil face is big enough, and should clearly be considered a room trap (so anyone can detect it, 1-in-6 chance). The sword and the fishing rod are most probably small traps because the traps are placed on an item, but not “to prevent it being tampered with or stolen” (the evil orcs are not trying to protect neither the sword nor the rod), but then why?

Still, the three features are obvious, so when the party enters their respective rooms, the referee would state that there is a sword stuck in a stone, or lying on a slab; a wall covered by a big green devil face with the mouth opening the size of a priest-hole; and a lake, next to which there’s a fishing rod propped on and cast into it.

“What are you going to do?”

If a player says he touches either the sword or the rod, or enters the devil’s mouth, the referee rolls the trigger check, and, if needed, also rolls damage. In some cases, it’s stated that a Saving Throw is needed to avoid the effect.

But sometimes damage (or other effect) is automatic. That sounds worse than it actually is, remember that traps are not triggered automatically even if a charatcer interacts with it incorrectly.

Risk can be lowered even further, even if a trap is hidden, simply because there’s a mechanic to detect room traps:

And a mechanic to detect and disable treasure traps (only for Thieves):

There are no mechanics to disable room traps, but that’s just natural, since most traps that fall into that category are not meant to be disabled but bypassed, and it depends on the player’s ingenuity more than on a mechanical standard. A pit in a room can be bypassed by jumping, placing a wooden table as a bridge, by a flight spell, or using a rope to descend and then climb from the other end, each solution requiring its own unique roll, if at all.

Hidden Traps. Something else

Into the Odd disencourages the use of hidden traps. Since there is not a mechanical way to avoid a trap, hidden traps feel cheap and bullshit.

But classic D&D inspired games, with their triggering, Saving Throw mechanics, detecting and possibly dissabling or bypassing mechanics would not suffer from that, most of the time. Instadeath traps first have to be triggered, which is not automatic, and can also be detected and disabled/bypassed, then the player has a chance to avoid death making a saving throw. If he dies, it’s his damn fault.

Crown of Negativity | A (good? bad?) trap

So, this is me trying to make a good trap. But this is also me doing what I like: screw with the (campaign) world and the adventurers. Finally, this is what happens when I listen to Tool’s Lateralus (their only good album, which I must have listened to more than 5,000 times for the last 20 years) when I write.

A room in a dungeon

A boarded door (secret door roll) in a dark hallway leads to this room.

This room is different, maybe it’s dimly lit and there are purple or crimson courtains, while the rest of the rooms are crude and dilapidated; or, on the contrary, it’s ruined and full of dust, while the rest are tidy or sumptuous.

There is an altar, and a medium size wooden chest, chained, barb wired, and locked. A dry skeleton lies next to it. “Someone doesn’t really wanted this opened.”

Tell the players that a Thieve’s Remove Traps roll is needed to avoid damage from the barbed wire (1d4, perhaps). No other trap is present. If there is no Thief in the party, or if they come up with a different solution, let them try.

Inside there is a black crown, looks like obsidian or basalt, but it’s harder than steel, harder than any material you know. It seems to radiate darkness, or better, to devour the few photons around it.

“What do you do?” Ask them.

“I put the crown on”.

The person who puts on the crown, must pass a Saving Throw vs Spells, and in a failure, disappears completely, the crown falls to the floor, making no sound, as though it also devoured soundwaves.

If someone else puts the crown, it doesn’t trigger its effect, no saving throw is rolled.

Go back to the first one who failed the ST.

When you put on the crown, you feel your body disappear and now you’re falling into darkness. The crown is no longer on your head. There is someone else there, you can’t see it but you can feel it. It is a darkness in the dark.

Its voice speaks directly to your mind: “I can help you get out of here, my child. Just wear my crown on your head.” You can feel that it is handing you its crown, but some afterimages form in your mind: if you wear the crown, yes, you can come out of this well of darkness, but your body will be possessed by that other darkness, whose name, you know as well, is Grudge, who others call Saturn for it habit of eating its children.

There’s no salvation for you. If you leave this well of darkness, your body will cease to be yours and you will only exist as a remnant in Grudge/Saturn’s memory, ignorant to the damage done (but see the next section).

If you stay here, you will prevent that darkness from invading the world, but your only company will be the darkness and the darkness in it, to the lonesome end. Worst part? All this pain is not an illusion.

Hope this is what you wanted.

Hope this is what you had in mind.

’cause this is what you’re getting.

What I did here

There are obvious hints that the trap is there, that it is not a good idea to open the box. The room is concealed behind a secret door. The crown is hidden inside a protected box. The players don’t have a reason to put on the crown, but they still might (the fun in these games comes from experimenting and interacting with the environment, right?) The first character to do so still has a chance to avoid the consequences of the fatal mistake in the form of a Saving Throw.

It all comes down to one bad choice: wearing the crown.

Once a character fails that Saving Throw, he’s as good as dead.

If you want, you can ask for a Saving Throw vs Posion or Death one the player accepts the second, abstract crown. If he fails, he is devoured and his essence no loger exists, only his body, now possessed by the dark god. If he succeeds, though, he will live inside the god, unable to influence its behavior or controlling his own body. He will be the eternal spectator. And you better come uo with a very dark and very bleak and very grim spectacle, please. A world-changing event, maybe light ceases to exist in this planet, and only magical light is possible, but scarce.

If this trap was made with Into the Odd in mind, instead of rolls, everything is automatic once a character interacts correctly with each element. Traps don’t work (and cause disaster) because they follow a series of mechanics and the dice hate you*. Traps work (and cause disaster) because you make the wrong choices.

This trap can’t be disabled, the only way to bypass it is ignoring it entirely. Next time I should write one that can actually be disabled and bypassed by actively interacting with it.

*Magical thinking is bad for you.

One single bad decision. Will you enter?


Chaos Magick-User, Vagabond, Dork

7 thoughts on “What’s a good trap? + Crown of Negativity

  1. Traps are probably the toughest facet of the game for me. It seems like I can’t make up my mind about how I want to approach them. On the one hand, I like the idea of maximum information Into the Odd is preaching; on the other, I appreciate the occasional “gotcha” (and this is what saving throws are for, really: to give you one last chance).

    I think the crown is totally fair. Secret room, clearly out of place, trapped container – and they can still decide to leave it – or loot it and unwittingly cause the apocalypse.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know, it’s the same for me. If a PC steps on a preassure plate and an arrow is shot at him, what the best approach? Automatic damage? Saving throw? Versus what? Dexterity check? The referee rolls for the arrow to hit vs the character’s AC? What would the arrow’s attack bonus be? All these options produce more or less the same effect, can one pick one and say, “This is the best option?”


  2. Even with ItO, it might be okay to have some saving throws here, but the idea of course is that the player’s wits and interrogatory questions should be what really saves them. Also, the entire trap doesn’t need to be visible: enough of it that they can interact with it and make choices. Seeing a pressure plate doesn’t mean they know what it is connected to, but if they inspect the room they might see nozzles on the ceiling or tiny holes in the wall. On further inspection, they might note discoloration on the nozzles or a few tiny darts on the floor. From there, the fun is figuring out how to get past the trap (and thus to the treasure) without triggering it, or else making a choice that the benefit isn’t worth the risk (boo boring).

    Information – Choice – Impact

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I have used some saves when I think a trap should not kill a character, either because it’s just another obstacle before the main threats, or just because it’s been neglected after decades of abandon (ancient ruins, after all). But if a PC dies, he dies, even if it’s the first trap they encounter.

      But some traps are just meant to kill, like the crystal wall at the end of the introductory dungeon. One player, curious, used his mace to break the wall, he and his hireling survived, another player’s PC and hireling survived, but the third PC and hireling drown and only their equipment floated where it could be looted (it was OK, both characters were furries, no loss at all!).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Green Devil Face is a good trap, because it can be tested. If you get annihilated by it, you’d admit you were not being very careful. It’s also fun because once you know what it can do, the knowledge makes you relatively safe from it but you can use it to your advantage- that monster you couldn’t harm because of it’s immunities… how to get rid of that pesky troll once & for all…

    The crown is good. You probably don’t need to wrap it up THAT tight either. If no save- give the player the opportunity to keep playing as Grudge, pursuing an evil agenda in secret. That could be fun.

    You can also allow a save under conditions- maybe spellcasters only get a save as they are used to this weird sort of shit. If you allow a save & the player wins- describe the mental battle pushing each other for control of the body yada yada yada… and say you’ve won, you can return. But you’ll be bringing Grudge with you… you can _feel_ him back there, lurking at the edge of your thoughts…

    Liked by 1 person

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