Saturday, March 23, 2024

TRAPS and the joys not having fun

My friend Strawberry Milk on the OSR discord asked me to write an article about traps. You can blame him for this.

Traps are environmental hazards which sometimes kill you and usually don't make sense. Typically they prevent you from accessing something you want like treasure, a pathway between locations, or your life.

There's two big camps when it comes to traps: people who prefer to telegraph and people who don't have strong opinions about making sure their players have fun.

All things in life are ultimately transient and without satisfaction. Playing a game, making a million dollars, being especially good at something, all of these joys are ultimately sources of decay, pain, and displeasure as they ultimately slip through your fingers like so much water. The only true joy in life is the ending of attachments to finite things.

With that in mind, I fall into the latter category. I don't care if my players are having fun. I want them to *enjoy* themselves, because I want my friends to enjoy spending time with me, but whether or not they're having fun is ultimately their own personal responsibility.

I understand this is probably a huge turn off for a lot of people. That's okay - I've accepted the fact that I'm doomed to be a walking anachronism. There's a lot of different ways to play games and everybody is looking for something different. If someone sits down to my table and ends up not wanting to play with me again, that's okay, this kind of game is not for everyone. 

I think of it like this: do mountain climbers do what they do because it's 'fun'? How about cave explorers? Marathon runners? Spelunkers? Surely spelunkers aren't having 'fun'. Getting stuck in a cave a quarter mile below the earth is not fun.

Fuck Fun

What exactly is 'fun'? Two definitions I found: 1. a source of enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure, and 2. sport, merriment, frolicsome amusement. Therein lies the confusion.

Some people think of 'fun' as the sensation of pleasurable joy in the body that comes from the feelings of energetic freedom, playful openness, and getting desires satisfied. That is definition 2. Definition 1 can refer to anything which 'amuses' or produces 'enjoyment' and 'pleasure'.

Now, all people enjoy 'fun' of both definitions, but I suspect people who prefer Def 2 are less interested in Def 1. Definition 1 fun, in terms of the explanation I'm giving, includes things like knitting a sweater, reading a Russian novel, watching an opera, hiking in the mountains, or meditating. These things don't bring joyful, energetic bliss, but a sense of satisfaction that arises out of communion, concentration, and delaying gratification. Definition 2 is more like eating chocolate cake, playing video games, or watching Wrestlemania.

It's sort of like the difference between the pleasure of working hard to overcome an obstacle, seeing our efforts come to fruition, and the pleasure of getting to go to cheesecake factory for your birthday. I've never been inside a cheesecake factory, but I suppose humans enjoy it. One of them comes about through your own efforts, one is blasted as you from the exciting end of a super-soaker.

I'm not trying to denigrate one and laud the other. All people enjoy both. However, I do feel that there is an over-saturation of recreation directed towards Definition 2 fun, and not as much to Definition 1 fun. I like Definition 1 fun better. Definition 2 fun tends to leave me with a hang-over, tends to be addicting, and fries my nerves. It's given to anhedonia. That's why I lean heavier into the long-term, gratification-delaying Def 1 fun in my games. If you don't like it, there's plenty of other things for you to do than play this specific game as my specific table.

Late night thought

Maybe a good d&d game is described as being somewhere in the middle of Def 1 and Def 2 'fun' - sometimes you have to pull teeth with stone-age dentistry and sometime you get to pie Succubuses in the face and get paid doing it.

The part I'm really against is pulling punches or being afraid to hang out punishments or unfair odds. I don't really care about 'fairness'. The point isn't for me to articulate a scenario for the players. I'm an objective party in all this - if the players wanna roll stupid I'm down to fuck around. If they break my stuff, good for them. If my stuff breaks them, maybe they learn something or don't come back and I have to look for new players (Fresh meat). Maybe we play a different kind of game, or adjust the style of the campaign. But this is my default and preferred mode.

My fun as the DM comes from seeing players enthusiastically applying ingenuity, gusto, and daring. I get my thrills both from seeing parties decimated and parties overcoming unbeatable odds by the skin of their teeth. I feel that if I bend the odds in any direction I'm tampering with that.

How to do a trap

What exactly is a trap? My loose definition is a potentially dangerous or weird thing that prevents the players from getting something they want. Traps are sometimes mandatory for accessing an area, but they're usually hidden, artificially constructed, or somehow lurking just out of sight. For instance: a series of columns you have to jump across to access a door on the other side of a chasm isn't a trap, although it's dangerous and prevents players from getting somewhere. However, if one of those columns has a 1-in-6 chance of collapsing when landed on, that would be a trap.

Good traps are puzzles that create some harm or difficulty for giving the wrong answers, but you should generally be able to experiment with traps to learn what they do and how to overcome them. It's hard to experiment with a floor tile that causes an arrow to shoot out from a statue, but it's easy and fun to experiment with a floor tile that causes a lime-green acid waterfall to pour from the ceiling. In this way, good traps also lend themselves to alternative uses.

It's boring if most traps just straight up kill you. Often times players will become traumatized the first time an unexpected trap kills a PC. They'll start turtling up, poking everything with sticks. If you're really unlucky they'll come up with a door routine, or a plan they can just run on script that deals with the basics, like this:

Every time we come to a door we do these steps:
1. Examine the floor, walls, and ceiling around the door for anything weird.
2. Poke the wood with a stick. Poke the handle with a stick.
3. Look closely at the handle to see if there's anything weird.
4. Listen at the door
5. Look through the key hole

If they're doing shit like this you may be going a bit too hard. Ease off the gas a bit or try telegraphing a little more. However, some players are just babies. They just have to be taught a lesson.

The easy and dickish way to get players to stop running door routines is to make each of those steps take 10 minutes. If you roll for a wandering encounter every 10 or 20 minutes, they're bound to be attacked every time they find a door. Instead, they'll just have to use their wits. At a minimum, roll an encounter check when they meet a door and don't walk by or try to open it right away.

Encounter checks are DESIGNED to be the force of 'Time' in the dungeon. Encounter checks are how you give time its meaning. The more often you roll them, the more important time is. My default it every 20 minutes or every other turn. I adjust that up or down depending on difficulty of area. I also throw more if the players are being loud, or if they were recently in combat (eg, monsters are on high alert or looking for them)

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Oh, also. Traps thrive on context. Sure, you could roll some generic shit on a table like "paralyzing gas, released from butt statue" or "poisoned arrow, inside umbrella rack" or "electrocuting disco-ball, descends from ceiling when music is played", or "swinging axe pendulum" but those get stale quick. Good traps are integrated with their surroundings in a clever way.

No, I don't edit this stuff after I write it. 

Edit: That's not true.

Arnold K famously defined traps like this:

- No obvious solution
- Multiple possible solutions
- Solution depends on common sense
- No specific tool required

Hazards aren't really traps

A hazard is like a stupid trap. It just sits there, it's not really trying to hide itself. It's dangerous to everybody, even denizens, although denizens are usually aware of it and know how to go around. Hazards also exist higher on the scale of permanency

This is a thing from Permaculture aka my day job. As you go down the scale (stuff with the bigger numbers, yes it's confusing) things get less permanent, easier to change. Soil can be changed by adding compost, easy. Trees are harder because they take a long time to grow. Farm roads are harder I guess because like it costs lots of money and they're really big? I guess it's harder to move a road than a building, but like, what kind of road are we talking about here? Oh sorry I'm getting pedantic. Anyway, up at the top you have the fucking climate and the terrain, geological factors that require some number of atomic bombs to really change.

Hazards are like a 2. They're just there. You can't move em. Barring some magical circumstances, most traps are in the realm of 6-7.

My process for coming up with traps

My creative process is something like this:

1. Pick some stuff to be the 'seeds' of the thing I'm making. Maybe these are ideas from books or TV, things from the campaign setting, or stuff rolled on tables, from tarot or i ching, or grabbed from my subconscious. Just some raw materials.

2. Smash it together with some other stuff from my subconscious.

3. If it's good enough, go. If it's not, pick an element and change it.

That's not a lot to go on, but a lot of the creative process kind of happens in the dark, on the inside. I could meditate on it and find out more about the process, but maybe I'll save that for a different post. If you don't know how to be creative you might be in the wrong hobby (although not necessarily).

So let's do it with traps. Let's say we're working with a dungeon that has a "Dinosaurs" and "Lava" theme. Easy. First 10 ideas off the top of my head, stream of consciousness style:

1. Lava geyser
2. Rock slide
3. Paranha fish...thing?
4. Tarantulas, webs,
5. Giant emerald that sucks your soul out
6. Friendly bunny rabbit?
7. Magnetic stalactites
8. A t-rex skull that hides a door, bites the first approacher in half
9. Pteradactyl riding amazons
10. Earthquake

Okay, so some of these are traps, some of these are hazards, some of these are monster encounters, all of them are half-baked. Let's move on.

Next, traps need something to interact with. Call it a 'trigger'. It might be an actual trigger, like the aforementioned depressible floor tile, or it might just be a thing, like a cool glowing floating skull, or a lightning rod hooked up to an impressive machine. When you fuck with it in the wrong way it goes boom.

Take the lava geyser: maybe it spurts out on a timer. Every sixth turn it goes off with a GOOSH. Not really trappy, more like a hazard. To be a trap it has to A, have surprise and B. Protect something. Did I cover this already? Maybe when you get too close a dino-man tries to run out and push you in.

Paranha fish thing. I liked this one. I was imagining a cartoon fish skeleton trying to bite you, but that's not enough. Let's make it metallic and electrified. It's huge and affixed to the stone wall, like some kind of futuristic fossil. Oh, and some asshole has hooked it up to the underground river flowing nearby, so if you get in you get fried.

OH or maybe like there's a hydro-electric dam the fish is hooked up to, like they're trying to power it, but there's all these wires laying everywhere so you might get shocked, but if you have rubber gloves you could take the wires and zap dudes with them. Sounds like a dangerous place to have a fight.

Okay, next, tarantula webs? Easy. Webs, with tarantulas. You don't see 'em 'til they catch you. But the tarantulas don't want to eat you, instead they just want to drone on about niche subjects. Roll on your favorite "spider's favorite niche subjects" table or this one:

1. Flavors of baby scalp
2. Reading fortunes in bat guano shapes
3. How cool it is to absorb light oscillating parallel to your long axis.
4. Preferred mode of cleaning silk ducts
5. Genres of decomposed ooze
6. Brenda

Maybe if you're really interested you actually learn something useful. Otherwise save vs sleep. 

This is just an annoying NPC encounter, not really a trap.

This sucks. Okay, maybe I can't dissect how my creative process works. Instead, I'm just going to give you a list of traps.

1. A brain in a jar. Can cause hallucinations in one PC within 20' per turn. Tucked away on a shelf.
2. A stuffed coyote with its mouth open. Bites your hand off if you reach in. Gems contained within butthole.
3. A suspicious pull-rope dangling from the ceiling. When tugged 2 tons of corn spills on hapless fool.
5. That t-rex skull door that bites you in half I mentioned earlier I liked that one
6. A floor of greased glass. The walls are spikes. Below the glass is a pool of acid. The ceiling is made of fire. GOOD LUCK ASSHOLES.
7. A big statue that shoots lasers. There's a big red power off switch next to it.
8. In a big cavernous area there's one of those quarter operated binoculars dealies, like at the Grand Canyon, with an "out of order" sign on it. When you look in the viewfinders there's a tiny medusa inside and she stones you.
9. A field of grass, the grass is razor sharp.
10. A magical punchy tree. It has a corncob pipe and a jug of moonshine.
11. Teleporter to the moon. Labeled 'teleporter to the moon'

Okay that's enough. I don't know what I'm doing. If you're not having fun just try harder. Goodnight.


  1. These are good traps. It's important that either the set-up or the pay-off must be interesting, and extreme outcomes like getting teleported to the moon or getting stoned by a tiny medusa can definitely serve as a great pay-off.

  2. exalted post. thanks for articulating that thing about fun, i think it definitely further helps me get why theres such a split between the different kinds of people i play with - mainly why me and some of my friends enjoy unfun fun so much. also, i finally /get/ hidden traps now, very nice