The purpose of this post is to finish working through my thoughts on what purpose traps have in tabletop RPGs. I started the process with a rambling video a couple weeks ago, and this week I mean to say some of the same things, but with more precision and meaning. My analysis revolves around the aesthetics of play from the MDA Framework. This Extra Credits video on the subject is a good summary. The core aesthetics of tabletop RPGs I consider most relevant to traps are Narrative, Fantasy, Challenge, Discovery, and Fellowship (some to a greater degree than others).
I don’t believe that Narrative has much power to stand on it’s own as a reason to include traps in your dungeons. However, traps can help serve the drama and story of the game by illustrating the paranoia of those occupying the space. They are a sure sign that people in the area have reason to be suspicious and protective, more so than locks evidence. From a narrative perspective, traps can exist because it makes sense for them to. What about your dungeon implies that traps should be present? If this is an aesthetic you are trying to serve with your traps, then think about what kinds of traps would be available to the trappers and where they would consider important to trap.
The strength of Fantasy as an aesthetic to be served by the trap mechanic depends on what fantasy your players are pursuing. If one or more players is playing a character whose primary talents include finding and disarming traps, then it is important to their enjoyment that their be traps for them to find and disarm. In this case, traps should be described in detail as to the great quality of their concealment and the deadliness they would have posed if not detected and disarmed. In this way, the player gets to experience the role of a cat thief or burglar in a single die roll to find and another to disarm the trap. Traps can also serve the fantasy of living in a world of danger and death by threatening death at every turn. If that’s what your game is about, then traps are a great way to deliver on the fantasy of living in constant danger.
If used correctly, traps can be a natural mechanic for serving the Challenge of your game. Remember that challenge and difficulty are not the same thing. Traps don’t serve this aesthetic by making the game harder, but by creating puzzles and obstacles to be overcome. This type of challenge can be controversial because their solutions often depend on the cleverness of the players and not of the characters. I can understand the loss of immersion, but I personally enjoy such challenges and welcome them as a player. If you intend to use traps to serve the Challenge aesthetic, consider: Where can you place a trap to turn a combat into a puzzle to be solved by the players? What kinds of traps present the party with a resource management puzzle as they proceed through the dungeon?
With Discovery I might be reaching a bit, but it’s such a core aesthetic to dungeon crawling that I don’t think it can be left out when speaking about traps. I don’t think the dynamic of finding or triggering a trap does much to serve this aesthetic, but I do believe that traps can be used to divert party exploration and thus serve this important aesthetic. How can a trap be used to force the players to find another way around to their destination? How can traps push or pull the party into completely unfamiliar territory and thus feed their need to explore?
And finally, Fellowship. Tabletop RPGs of all sorts ride on the core aesthetic of having a social experience with others. When using traps in your game, they should never detract from the group experience of the players. Ideally, traps serve this aesthetic. You can serve the social needs of the players through traps when they are forced to work together to overcome the trap and when stories they remember for years are created by them. How can you design traps that require teamwork to overcome? How can you fashion traps to increase the likelihood that they create memorable moments at the table?
I haven’t gone into any detail about individual traps. Maybe in the future I’ll spotlight some traps built following these principles. For now I’ve only asked questions to guide trap creation. Please comment below with your thoughts examples from your games that you think can benefit this thought process.