Traps, Hazards and Terrain: Defining Traps

I love traps. At least, I used to love them. I don’t know what it is, but for all the things I love about 4e a lot of the spirit and fun has vanished from traps in the game. Hazards and terrain however have become a bit more exciting incidentally. There are tons of great options for how to treat squares differently on the field that become challenging, put a twist in a combat, or even work to the players’ advantage. Traps however, seemed to have been left flailing since previous editions.

That is not to say that I felt like they were designed better in previous editions, don’t get me wrong. It does seem like the focus for traps in 4e is simplicity. I applaud this in many respects; a DM doesn’t have all day to understand the intricacies of where trip lines are attached to, where winches are hidden or how the gas line leads to the flame jet in an ancient temple to Zehir. Add on top of all that complexity the fact that, as a player, you’re a bloody hero, how could you not have seen that pilot light on the wall or those conspicuous holes in the ceiling conveniently spaced equidistant from each other? The defense goes up immediately by DMs, “They were magically veiled! It’s a magical world!” and oftentimes, nobody is having fun with the trap at the end of the day.

It’s just too bad. Traps have great potential. They should reward actions and reactions by the players in the game, they should incite a twist to an otherwise expected scenario, but they should also be able to put pressure on a situation, which in turn induces drama, excitement and ultimately, fun. Traps should be fun.

Just like monsters, it’s hard to support how inflicting damage upon them, incapacitating, sapping their healing surges, banishing them to the Feywild and all those offensive actions are actually fun for the players. As always, making these dangerous situations surmountable, and then watching the players actually surmount them is where the glee is. It’s where the gold is. Traps are no fun if you can’t bypass them. They are no fun if no one interacts with them except for when the DM rolls damage dice.

So how to do this? Well, WotC has evolved their designs for traps since 4e was first released. There was a long article about it in a Dungeon magazine a long time ago (I think it was Dungeon, and sorry I don’t have a correct citing because there is no way to look something like that up on their stupid website), but that article pretty much got filtered right into the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 soon thereafter. The DCs were still skewed and the system for creating traps was still clunky. All it really did was add a few more traps, some of very high level which was in need of any support. But I believe we can do better.

If we examine our goals for traps in the game, we come up with a fundamental few properties that make them essentially different from a monster, a skill challenge or terrain. These will be our guidelines for their design:

Guidelines for Traps

  1. Traps should be a part of the environment and generally immovable. Some traps can move to an extent, but ultimately they exist only in one place, in a single dungeon “room” or encounter. They share this property with terrain, but traps can offer a bit more complexity and excitement in terms of timing and pacing in a combat.
  2. Traps are not cognizant. Entirely. Traps are not conscious and should not favor any one enemy over another. Further, they should not necessarily “aim” their attacks. Again, though I believe there could be some traps that blur this line in terms of how they detect enemies, for the most part, if you’re attempting to design something that moves and decides who to attack you’re best just making a monster.
  3. Traps must be able to be disabled. As mentioned before, this is a fundamental part of what makes a trap a trap, but furthermore, disabling it should not necessarily require standard actions. As much as I believe that traps can be fun, no character feels heroic when forced to use a standard action cutting the blue wire. There’s already the risk of not making the DC for the disable check, there’s no need to have a player pout in a corner because all they did in that battle is stuff a copper piece in a gas tube. With multiple successes required on a trap to disable it, a move action should suffice for a cost to do so.
  4. Traps must have some form of hidden quality. Traps are inherently hidden or not understood by a victim. That’s the entire point. Now, a trap’s capability to injure, capture, kill, or thwart that victim is its ultimate goal, but the method by which it accomplish this is rooted in subterfuge. It’s important to remember that this is a fundamental tactic of a trap, and otherwise it is simply a dangerous object or zone. A trap is indeed a dangerous object or zone, but it is hidden. More on that later.

Of course I’ve got some simple rules that can be woven in to your home games to make traps more rewarding, and lots of ideas for unique, deadly or otherwise interesting new traps. However, it’s worth noting, that even after The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 reprinted material for designing traps with faulty difficulty DCs and lackluster and complicated examples, and even after many modules and splat books have printed traps that also fail to adhere to a cohesive system, the Essentials Rules Compendium worked to help correct that. The more recent RC builds a much more simple outline for traps that appear much more like monsters in the stat blocks, with easy explanations for the perception, roles, effects and countermeasures of traps. Though I’m still not convinced that traps have reached their full potential with these rules, it is refreshing to see such a streamlined and consistent system at work (despite the fact that within the even more recent Shadowfell Encounter Book they used this system for traps, but not the same coloring in the stat blocks).

Therefore, with this being the first of what I hope to be an ongoing series, I’ll provide a sample of a very simple and low level trap that adheres to the Essentials outline for traps with the hope that we can build up from there with some more insidious, crafty, and fun traps in the future—so enjoy the Wolf Trap below, and make sure to come back for more crunch here at Rules As UNWritten!


2 Responses to Traps, Hazards and Terrain: Defining Traps

  1. boccobsblog says:

    I hear ya. Is there a way to list the things you liked about traps in previous editions and bring that flavor to 4E? Or won’t the mech. of the game allow them?

    • shimmertook says:

      I definitely want to get into the things about traps from previous editions. I anticipate some of those things can work in 4e, some not.

      Some might not agree with the sentiment (maybe even Fingolfin), but something I enjoyed about traps in previous editions was that they might often be in places that weren’t part of combat. Traps, inherently, are meant to be left around when the villains AREN’T there. They’re away on business, but if any curious little adventurers try to get into their vault while they’re away, that’s what this steel cage that drops from the ceiling and leaves them bleeding and probably rotting by the time they get back is for.

      Another thing I actually enjoy about traps is that they’re hidden, and that will be the topic of my next installment in this series.

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