March 8, 2021

Are You Afraid of the Doors?

If I were to download my Roll20 chat logs, I’d probably find that about 20% of all rolls are random investigation checks. With a little more context, these rolls would be classified as “trap checks.” Why is this? Why do some groups spend so much time fretting over traps?

I think this partially comes from previous eras of design philosophy. For example, let’s consider the grognard standard Tomb of Horrors. Every square in that dungeon is a potential pit, and anything you touch might be a trap. As further evidence, let’s take a look at how many trap examples appear in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide vs the 3.5 version. There are eight traps laid out in the 5e DMG, and there are 105 different types of traps listed in the 3.5 manual. So, while I haven’t read every released adventure from 2003 through today, I feel like it’s safe to say traps were a bigger part of the game previously.

I know I’ve mentioned this at some point in a previous entry, but the opening scene to Raiders of the Lost Ark is in many ways the perfect D&D dungeon. What is in that abandoned temple: traps upon traps. We have a pit trap, followed by a poison dart trap, followed by a missive rolling rock. Thing is, for as exciting this all plays out on the screen, in D&D (and specifically D&D 5e for the sake of this argument) all of these obstacles would be resolved with a handful of dice checks. Indiana Jones is one thing, but when your dwarf paladin rolls an 8, a 4, and a 12 your party will be looking less like an adventuring party and more like a comedy improv troupe.

What happened? Why aren’t we having a great time dodging spinning scythes and scoring legendary treasure?

First, we have to consider what function a trap serves in D&D and roleplaying writ large. In earlier editions, detecting traps was a class feature. As an additional perk to being a thief or a rogue, you could be the only one in the party that could save everyone from an ignoble doom. Traps could be thought of as a sort of asymmetrical enemy only they could handle.

If we approach the concept from a system agnostic setting, a trap is intended to impede your progress towards something precious worth guarding. Maybe this is a steamer trunk of magic items or the tomb of a venerated king, but it’s got to be something you want to keep just anybody from accessing. In a modern mindset, we might consider a safety deposit box as a reasonable analog. And if we next consider what traps a bank would lay, we’d find first and foremost an alarm that would alert armed guards, after that you might see an automatic door lock itself, and then if all else failed, an ink packet might ruin any cash you’d hope to obtain.

In the context of a D&D style adventure, a trap really acts more as an HP tax. I cannot myself recall any tomb I’ve entered where traps were the only form of defence. Traps usually serve to dink and dunk the health of the party until an appropriate monster can lay a big hurt on the expedition. Traps soften you up before a proper defender can finish the job.

So again we approach the question of the role of traps with two answers: they soften the party up for other defenders and they give the rogue a chance to excel. As we know now, rogues don’t have any special ability above the rest of the available classes to detect traps so we can throw this justification out right here. If we’re simply looking for a way to weaken the party to make later obstacles more difficult, why not just make the later obstacles more powerful in the first place? We could save ourselves a little bit of time that way.

I can picture my imaginary reader bristling at this, so I’ll take a second to talk about the non-mechanical or narrative reason for traps: for variety. If you presented your players with a dungeon of four rooms in a linear path, each one filled with a group of orcs stronger than the one before they might very well be bored by the end of the session. Then what if you did the same thing next week but with undead then lizardfolk after that? Any of these humorously simplistic scenarios would be vastly improved with a trap to break up the monotony. Three rooms of generic orc fights followed by a grid of pits would be much more enjoyable than four rooms of orc bands. I hope at this point you see that traps can serve a valuable purpose enhancing the experience of the group.

I’d like to refer back to the original problem that spawned this musing. If there could be traps anywhere in a dungeon, why not take every precaution and roll every few feet to see if you can’t find a trap? Even if the player recognizes how much time it takes to examine every square inch of a dungeon for potential traps, why not trade the extra time for a better chance to defeat whatever foul creatures lie in wait later on?

For me. It’s likely too late. My players have been conditioned over years to expect traps anywhere and everywhere. But you might not have to be in such a bind.

When a new DM asks me for advice on how to get better, the first thing I tell them is not everything needs a roll. For example if the wizard wants to drink a tankard of ale, there’s not really a chance of failure, so it’s not reasonable to have them roll a constitution check to see if they could finish a single beer. Much in the same way, it’s not reasonable to expect a player to check every door before they enter, and as such, you should not place traps on a simple door. Again, in favor of my argument, one of the first traps listed in the 3.5 DMG is a doorknob with poison smeared all over it. 5e lists no doors with traps on them. If we think back to the example of the temple from Raiders of the Lost Ark, each trap is auspicious and sensical. As tempting as it may be as a devious dungeon master to fool a player with a spring loaded spear behind a false door, you are conditioning your players to worry about every door they open.

My advice is to make it so traps are not obvious but sensical. A few random squares in a nondescript corridor leading to a pit trap doesn’t make a ton of sense. However, if there was a pressure plate in front of a sacred idol, that makes quite a bit more sense. To simplify, if you don’t want your players randomly, don’t make your traps random.

I do think traps add variety and excitement to the game, but if players feel the need to check every room for traps, you’re going to have a great deal of your play time eaten up by inconsequential rolls. So if you find that your games are dragging, consider the dangers you are placing in front of your players. It wouldn’t make sense to have them open a door and find a goblin, a demon, a cyborg, and a human in a t-shirt. Don’t fill your corridors with random darts, scythes, pits, or oozes. Having fewer traps will make the ones you do ultimately include mean more.

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