A Pentacle of Trapping (Blog Carnival, 11-2011)

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is ‘how to think like a villain’ with a focus on traps and tricks. My first entry this month was focused on the villains. This one is focused on the traps, and covers my pentacle of trapping; the five principles on which I base my traps.

The hill is covered in glue

On Berin Kinsman’s Dire Blog, the Carnival entry for this month touched on elements which ground traps in some reality and ensure they have a purpose. Like the huge fans in so many Science Fiction films, convoluted death traps often litter up the scenery of scenarios simply for the sake of being there and as a sort of homage to… Rube Goldberg? If you are like me as a player or GM, then that sort of thing takes you right out of the game as the question, “Why is this here?” best given voice by Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest, rises up to slap you in the face with the bodies of needlessly dead heroes. If a trap is there just to allow the heroes to prove their ingenuity and feel like they are accomplishing something then it was not put there by the villain, it was put there by someone in Human Resources to raise team spirit. Jerks.

For want of a nail

One of my guiding principles in building traps is that they should in some way be a reduction of burden and expense on the villain, not an addition. What villain, busily pursuing their villainy, has the time and interest in constructing a complicated trap when hiring or duping a few mooks to stand in a hallway with an area effect weapon and a fierce beast of some kind can more cheaply and easily do the trick just as well… or better? A trap in this situation really only makes sense if there is a mook and/or beast shortage, or if the characters have a real way with mooks and beasts.

From this point of view, a trap needs to be economical, have a high degree of reliability, and can’t take up too much of my villain’s time planning and building it.

Hands off! This is Private Property!

Another guiding principle I adhere to in trap design is that whatever it is set to protect or prevent access to has to be something which no one – not even the villain – will need to visit. Magic can find a few ways to negate this principle, but in general, it holds. Put yourself in the villain’s shoes for just a second as you contemplate your daily routine and what a massive pain in the ass it is just to enter your lair every day because of all the damned traps!

If it is an area with even a reasonable amount of foot traffic, either don’t trap it, or use a deactivated trap in that area as a clue for how to disarm a later, more important trap. Security protocols get compromised by staff and frequent visitors to a site all the time in every genre – use that reality rather than denying it. Of course, like all principles, you may have to bend it from time to time to survive.

Right…No human being would stack books this way~

The third guiding principle I use is that ultimately, the best traps are just protective coloration. The massive vault door your players know must be trapped, isn’t, but the secret tunnel they think leads from the villain’s chambers into the vault is actually a meat grinder and incinerator. Misdirection leading to forced choices both hard and loaded can be both trap, and trick. Employing this approach can save the poor villain millions on digging equipment and venomous reptiles, and is guaranteed to at least delay the hero. One of the best things I think you can hear from players who believe they are confronted by a trap is, “It can’t be that easy.”  Once that phrase has been uttered they will turn themselves inside out before attempting what lies before them. Awesome! (and economical, too!)

A key point to remember though is to make sure this trap and all the others are firmly rooted in the character, location, and resources of the villain. A meta-game trap is both cheap and cruel, and accomplishes nothing but stroking a weak GM’s ego when it baffles the players.

Example: The Clean Bathroom  – a vile Meta-Game Trap

I gamed once (stress on once) with a GM who normally played with a group built primarily of hospitality workers. Imagine this scene:

In a complex they were exploring he took great pains to describe the dirt and wear and tear of daily life. Scuffed floors, hand prints, piles of trash, and other filth were all described in vivid detail, so that when the bathroom was reached, – a grime-free bathroom – its spotless nature really stood out.

It also sparked a long debate on the meaning of this detail. The characters had a great and rousing debate about it, and stand in the hallway trying to decide if they should enter the bathroom and “search it,” or if they should just move on.

The ostensible in-game reason for the bathroom being spotless was that there were spy cameras in there just as there were everywhere else. The real reason though, was that the mission had a time limit and the heaviness of detail was meant to get players tied up in knots trying to wrestle with this tricky meta-trap of significance and the massive force of misdirection being applied not from an adversarial level by the NPCs but on a meta-level by the GM himself.

Here goes nothing!

The fourth principle on which I base my traps is that if they are to serve the story, beating them will advance things in some way. This also means that there must be a way of beating them available to the players, and plausible for the characters. Building a challenge that tests the character and the player, without requiring things of the player that they have no reason to be able to know or do can be a hard line to walk. The key point is choice. If the player can freely choose to enter into the trap to try to beat it, then it can be as hard as is appropriate for the villain and his circumstances. If, however, the trap is sprung on them and cannot be avoided, but only defeated, then the characters must possess the keys to do so. Failure is fine, so long as success was possible.

The last principle which guides my use of traps may be less applicable to the community at large because it hinges on a factor important to my own style which is the idea of risk and reward. Some traps can be powerful and memorable not because they are clever and convoluted, but because they were very simple but required a sacrifice on the part of the heroes. This sacrifice might be of time spent learning a vital lesson before escape can be won, or it might be submitting to peril or risk the loss of an innocent life, or it might be a threat used as blackmail to force the hero to sacrifice their honor, and all they hold dear to prevent some catastrophe.

I feel it is important that for traps to be worthwhile they truly need to have teeth, and you as the GM must be willing to let those teeth snatch away the prize even if that means not all the characters see the end of the story. Not all traps will be life or death, and indeed the best ones are not, but employing traps is all about threat, and a threat with no teeth is no threat at all.

2 Responses to “A Pentacle of Trapping (Blog Carnival, 11-2011)”
  1. I don’t use traps that often for similar reasons to what you and Berin have posted: unless they have a pirpose, they’re just set dressing. Most can be grouped into sime purposes: alarms, intrusion prevention (cyclone fencing, moats, big STAY THE F%€# OUT signs), containment(so that the intruders can be collected), and kill the crap out of intruders.

    The latter isn’t really practical for someplace being used heavily. You don’t want to rig a scattergun to the main entrance to your deout, only to forget it’s there because you’ve had a hard night of villainy and forgot that double mochacinno and get a faceful of Double-0 for your efforts. This is the sort of thing you do in an automated facility or a place that has political or religious significance — like the burial location of a pharoah, a reliquary, or an place where treasure is stored (a gold vault underground that might be tempting to thieves.)

    Most traps are going to be of the intrusion warning or the “keep out” variety — really obvious stuff like fences, guard dogs, cameras, etc. They might augmented with harmful stuff like broken glass on top of the compund wall, or some kind of means to trap or injure — to slow down intruders so they can be rounded up for the necessary face-off with the bad guy (preferably with the “look how close I am to finishing off my master plan” monologue.)

    Killing off intruders, while it ups the risk, doesn’t do villains any good. Dead hero, loads of cleanup; live hero, big intelligence source and possible useful bartering tool.

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