How to Make Deathtraps Fair?


Advice


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DISCUSSION QUESTION
When does an ambush or a trap cross the line into unfair territory? How do you make your villains seem smart and savvy while still giving the PCs a fighting chance?

Comic for illustrative purposes.


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the entire point of a deathtrap is it isnt fair


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Whilst not a complete answer, one contributing factor is proactively rewarding investment in knowledge skills by giving related hints. E.g you notice some unusual architectural features that seem to serve no functional or aesthetic quality but have some commonality with avalanche or rockslide control defences.

The party hasn't found the boulder trap trigger but have a big clue that there is some sort of boulder/rock trap around.

Similarly research into the original inhabitant or architect might reveal some signature trap features that they are known for. That gives some foreshadowing to the players.

Those players that only invest in the tactical skills will find they receive less clues.


Ryan Freire wrote:
the entire point of a deathtrap is it isnt fair

+1


I like the idea of traps that maim players characters so they feel badass for defeating the enemy while wounded.


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Scrapper wrote:
Ryan Freire wrote:
the entire point of a deathtrap is it isnt fair
+1

I think the OP's question is related to the fact that the players rely on the GM to describe the surroundings. If the GM fails to provide any clue then the players will feel justly cheated. If something is foreshadowed then the players will be on alert for a trap. The question is how to provide clues without giving away every trap.


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There isn't really a way to have a successful trap (own its own) in Pathfinder.

Either the trap outright kills the PC or it does HP damage when is healed and ignored.

Where traps excel is when they happen while something else is happening. A chase, and combat, etc.

Rarely you have traps which inflict some sort of lasting status condition which can be either as bad as instant kill traps, or something that is removed depending on the availability of magic in the party.

Rarely you have negative status affects which can't be removed but aren't complete show stoppers for future combats.

Traps have always occupied this awkward space where the tropes say we should have them, but they typically add very little to the game.


MageHunter wrote:
I like the idea of traps that maim players characters so they feel badass for defeating the enemy while wounded.

I like that quite a bit, actually. It means that the in-game point of the trap worked, which makes your adversaries seem more competent without abruptly ending the campaign.


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I personally don't like what I call "the trap tax". Traps are my least favorite part of the game as a player, and as a GM I tend to go lightly on the outright "save or die/take x damage" traps.

More often I use social traps. The ranger you've been travelling with suddenly turns and fires an arrow at the wizard. Surprise round: roll for initiative. After the mechanic character dived into the pool, they failed a save. A number of scenes later, the character is caught sleepwalking and begins a summoning ritual. You encounter the wizard from earlier in the graveyard late at night. When you go to say hi, suddenly the dead rise from their graves and begin to go after you.

Traps, but not traps. I do tend to do a lot of long con stuff when writing my own adventures though. My players tend to know they need many ranks in Sense Motive and to use it frequently if things get suspicious.

When I do use deathtraps, I always tend to put a way to go around or disable them without being a rogue. You can go the route with the big, uncovered spike pit. It's faster. Or you could go through the guarded room of goblins the other way. This is a suspicious hallway with a lot of one-way doors. Get into the hall and a boulder rolls down it, but with a perception check you can find the three switches that unlock the doors and disable the boulder. Careful though, the third is a trap in and of itself.

The boulder trap and moving blades traps are also good. Ones that have initiative and move a set distance each turn. A player can trip it and you get the rush moments of needing to escape it. If they have auto-reset, it then informs the players without first taxing their HP/resources that they need to come up with a solution for getting past this. They may decide to run through and hope for the best, or take their time giving the villains (who heard the trap go off up the hall) time to prepare for a surprise round.


Hugo Rune wrote:
Scrapper wrote:
Ryan Freire wrote:
the entire point of a deathtrap is it isnt fair
+1
I think the OP's question is related to the fact that the players rely on the GM to describe the surroundings. If the GM fails to provide any clue then the players will feel justly cheated. If something is foreshadowed then the players will be on alert for a trap. The question is how to provide clues without giving away every trap.

From my observations, a Deathtrap is one in which the party is aware of after they are already locked into it's jaws and must therefore figure out an escape, while fore shadowing and early discovery reduces it to a mere trap. You can fore shadow construction materials, bit's of odd plans and such to as an example of a sealed tomb deathtrap so that the party might look for a flaw and therefore escape a deadly fate. Another classic example, the party falls through a floor into a deep pit with spikes on the walls and they are slowly closing in, now comes the challenge of disabling it or escaping it on the clock. For added charm, have a classic hourglass with sand running as a prop next to the DM screen...


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Secret passages (as traps) are always much more fun than damage-dealers, especially if they split the party. (And, if you get eaten by a monster down there, well, it wasn't really the trap that killed you, now was it?)


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Traps are expensive to install and in a high verisimilitude environment are unlikely to be scattered around randomly. It is probably worth considering the intended purpose of the trap when designing the dungeon. I can think of several categories:
- The thief-killer, such as poison needle traps and blades that remove hands that have been inserted into holes. These are designed to stop a thief from stealing something valuable.
- The Guardian, these traps a found in tombs and similar places where there are no living guards or sentries. They will typically reset and are designed as a deterrent to entry.
- The sentry, these traps are similar but they are used in conjunction with real guards to enable a larger or multiple areas to be protected with a small force. Typically they will slow or capture the invader and alert the guards.
- Battlefield control, these traps are known by the defender and are used to assist in the repelling or capture of invaders. A pit trap in front of a ballista or archery position to prevent attack or an arrow trap down a side passage to prevent the attackers from gaining cover or getting away are examples.

The sentry and battlefield control examples can certainly add to an encounter. Whilst the guardian and thief killer can be annoying unless their placement adds to the overall tension in the game. Used well, the Guardian trap indicates that the party need to be on alert and are close to finding something worth protecting. The thief-killer should be expected by a cautious party. They should also most often be encountered after a significant encounter and the party may not have the resources to deal with the trap or it's effects if they went nova during the encounter.

To cut a long description short, traps are not an issue if they are logically placed and used to build tension. If they're just random irritants designed to sap resources when there is no time or resource pressure then yes they will be irritating.


When the “closet” with loot at the other end is actually a portable hole turned sideways and half the group is carrying bags of holding.

Bonus points if there is a trapped secret door concealing it.


Kobold trap, PC's spot a kobold that dashes down a tunnel ringing a bell, likely running for help, PC's pursue, cornering said kobold in a room only for it to contortion through a small hole in the wall too small for medium sized PC's to get through, the bell ringing is simply to let the rest of the clan, who have stayed out of sight to this point, know that intruders have past a trap point and to seal the entrance with huge stone slabs rolled into place. Now the PC's must figure out how to escape, with such options as gaseous form, shrink, shape shift. A Death Trap should be a challenge to over come once caught with in one, much like a nature disaster.


One of my favourite 'traps' was a swamp riddled with pockets of quicksand. Easy to spot outside of combat so the PCs knew it was around. But when they were being chased by lizardmen they couldn't afford the action to look for some ahead. The lizardmen knew the swamp and could avoid it easily but the players didn't.


Claxon and Hugo Rune have both suggested traps or trap-like hazards added to combat situations. C-dawg also suggested using them during a Chase scene. My question is how?

If the PCs are on alert for ambush, they're using Perception in response to a stimulus prior to combat. This means that if the party is encountering the trap BEFORE the fight, they'd likely detect it prior to the ambush.

On the other hand, perhaps the PCs encounter the foe first, and then said villain attempts to run away and thus lead the party INTO the trap. #1, the villain(s) have to get away; no small task in this game unless they're still at range, the PCs have no reliable ranged battlefield control spells/effects, and the party's ranged attackers fail to destroy the foe before it(they) run.

#2, even if the enemy has successfully fled, the PCs are not assured of giving chase. If they do and want to focus on melee there are several ways through Run actions, class abilities and spells that their movement can be superior to their enemy's.

Finally #3, the characters have to actually fall prey to the trap itself.

I had a game a while back where the party included a Dex-based barbarian. At APL 2 the characters were stalking through the woods where they'd encountered a kobold. They happen upon a small clearing hemmed with boulders; the PCs spot a kobold ambush behind the rocks. However because the party is using Perception on the scene and the party rogue has a high bonus he not only spots the trigger for the pit trap but gets a "general sense" of what it does - one square before the party with lots of forest debris (Location trigger) and a seam in the ground (hinged lid on pit trap).

The barbarian takes a 10' run, jumps, and clears the trigger, the 10x10 pit AND one of the boulders, landing BEHIND one of the kobolds. What followed was 2 rounds of ranged attacks and rage-fueled mayhem. While the trap posed a momentary obstacle, it wasn't much more of a factor in the fight than, say, a low wall or the boulders the kobolds were using for cover.

In the movies or other media it's easy to show the characters racing headlong towards or away from a threat, only to encounter traps along the way. However in PF there are Initiatives, Perception checks, Standard and Move actions to resolve, etc. How then does the GM deliver traps as part of the landscape of a fight or Chase scene without circumventing the mechanics of the game?


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Mark Hoover 330 wrote:
Claxon and Hugo Rune have both suggested traps or trap-like hazards added to combat situations. C-dawg also suggested using them during a Chase scene. My question is how?

One of my favorite examples is goblin archers and pit traps.

The goblin archers know where the pit traps are and will fire over them at attacks.

The attackers will not generally be aware of the pit trap locations and will attempt to charge the goblins. An action that requires moving in a straight line.

It takes a move action to make a perception check. Something most players are not going to spend actions on in combat.

In the above example, I typically layer the pit traps in a running fight. After the second or third pit trap, players will slow down and start checking for traps, while the goblins will continue firing on them.

The covered pit traps are not particularly difficult to find, if you take the move action to look for them, but you are not charging the goblins on the same round.

The traps themselves are not deadly unless the party is very careless, but they severely reduce the parties action economy. If a couple of party do fall in the pits, as is likely, it could take them several rounds to climb out while the goblins continue to fire on their teammates or even down onto the climbing (flat-footed) party members.


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I did this once, many years ago. Place the main boss in a large room, 60' x 120' or so and have the PC's approach down a 20' wide hallway. Let them see the map to the room, complete with fire, acid and regular pits for about 1-3 minutes. Then trigger darkness that covers the room and replace the map with a blank and shut the hall behind them.


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Generally, I don't design traps or ambushes with that level of lethality unless the PCs are expected to, well, expect such things. If they just watched the third Nazi stooge walk into the cavern, heard a "whoosh-CLANG", and saw the stooge's head come rolling back out just like the last two fools, then I won't cry if a PC blunders in like an idiot without looking around and fails their Reflex save. Even then, though, I err on the side of such a trap killing only one player as an example.

I'll use "slow but seemingly certain TPK" traps only as a bit of drama--if the party doesn't figure a way out and flubs all their skill checks, I'll throw 'em a a bone for free, though the end state may not be as optimal as if they had defeated the trap unaided.


I love using traps because it keeps the PC's on their toes at all times, and to me this feels a little more realistic once you've happened across a scary, ominous dungeon. Even if there are no traps in the dungeon, the PC's are in "edge of their seat suspense"-mode the entire time. I don't like TPK traps though. When I design traps, I usually try to make it a "2-3 PC's are trapped and the other 2-3 PC's have to help get them out" sort of thing.

Death traps are fine, but they should be well-described and only meant for a single party member. If it catches two PC's, so be it.


One concern about adding traps to fights: CR. Let's say you've got a group of 4 level 4 PCs. They're fighting against a group of goblin warrior 1 enemies who have littered the field with pit traps. PCs enter the room, spot 3 goblin warriors waiting to snipe them with arrows.

3 Goblin Warrior 1 = 405 XP, roughly a CR 1 fight. We want to make this a CR 4 fight at least. CR 4 = 1200 XP giving us a budget of roughly 800 XP to spend on Pit Traps.

A CR 1 Pit Trap is worth about 400 XP. That means we can afford... 2. So there's only 2 pit traps in the room?

Also, think about the logistics. How do the goblins get in and out of this room? If the room is small enough, why did they fill nearly the entire floor with a pair of pits?

Then there's the case of "what's a stimulus?" In this example the party enters a room where three goblins are hiding/using cover to snipe on the party. When the PCs approach the room they don't immediately see the goblins (per Stealth) so as part of their Move action to enter the room they intentionally search for a "stimulus" (something to fight) in the room. It could be argued, and has at my tables, that this search could reveal a trap in their midst as per the Perception skill.

If a monster, such as a Goblin Warrior 1 has a Stealth +10 and the average roll on a D20 is 10.5, the PCs might spot a goblin 30' away by rolling a 23 on a D20. Y'know what ELSE has a DC 23 to be spotted 30' away? The trigger mechanism for a pit trap. So if the goblins are seen, the trap trigger is seen too.

So in this CR 4 fight for 4 level 4 PCs, who might have a single 1/2 elf Druid (Swamp Druid) with a Perception +17, as the party kicks in the door and said character gets, say, a 27 on their Perception check, they not only spot the 3 goblins but they also see not only the trigger mechanism of the pit traps but also (since the PC beat the DC by 5 or more) gives an indication of what the trap does.

So the party of APL 4 kicks in the door, their spotter sees the floor covered in 2 pressure plates and huge sections of seams suggesting something harmful under where the floor drops away while also indicating to their friends the 3 goblins hiding behind columns on the far side of the room. Since a limited amount of conversation is a Free action the Druid rattles off these threats.

Do we think that this group of PCs, at level 4 and presumably with some level of experience in this game, will now run over the pit-trapped floor to melee with the 3 goblins?

So I ask again... how DO I add traps to a fight? I need a way that doesn't drop half a dozen traps on the battlefield adding way too much XP to the budget of the fight, doesn't ALSO hinder the enemies as much as it complicates things for the PCs, and isn't instantly recognized as a threat by the incoming party of characters.


Mark Hoover 330 wrote:

One concern about adding traps to fights: CR. Let's say you've got a group of 4 level 4 PCs. They're fighting against a group of goblin warrior 1 enemies who have littered the field with pit traps. PCs enter the room, spot 3 goblin warriors waiting to snipe them with arrows.

3 Goblin Warrior 1 = 405 XP, roughly a CR 1 fight. We want to make this a CR 4 fight at least. CR 4 = 1200 XP giving us a budget of roughly 800 XP to spend on Pit Traps.

A CR 1 Pit Trap is worth about 400 XP. That means we can afford... 2. So there's only 2 pit traps in the room?

Also, think about the logistics. How do the goblins get in and out of this room? If the room is small enough, why did they fill nearly the entire floor with a pair of pits?

So, let's say this is a defensive room, existing purely to trap enemies. X is room / corridor and P is pit trap:

X
XXXXX
XXXXX
PPXPP
PPXPP
XXXXX
XXXXX
X

The goblins wait at one end of the room to fire arrows at the PCs. They're not hiding, but they are behind partial cover.
There's also a blackened patch in the middle of the room, to make it look like there's some kind of fire trap there, to guide wary PCs away from the one safe path.

As soon as the PCs open the door at the far end of the room, they get arrows fired at them. At this point, the big tough barbarian will probably charge at the goblins and fall into the pit.

The rest of the party then has to decide if they're going to go around the pit (and risk falling into another pit), search for other pits, rescue the barbarian, or focus on defeating the goblins with ranged attacks.

There is a safe way across the room, so it's only a minor inconvenience for the goblins.

It's going to be pretty easy, but most CR 4 encounters are pretty easy for level 4 party.

Another option: the trigger for the traps is a big lever that one of the goblins pulls (with a readied action?). There's no way around the pits - the room is only ten feet wide. One of the pit traps is right in front of the goblins, and the other is immediately outside the room, so someone who tries to avoid falling into the pit by not entering it can also get caught.

Mark Hoover 330 wrote:
Y'know what ELSE has a DC 23 to be spotted 30' away? The trigger mechanism for a pit trap. So if the goblins are seen, the trap trigger is seen too.
FAQs wrote:
there are two ways Perception checks happen in the game. The first way is automatic and reactive. Certain stimuli automatically call for a Perception check, such as a creature using Stealth (which calls for an opposed Perception check), or the sounds of combat or talking in the distance. The flip side is when a player actively calls for a Perception check because her PC is intentionally searching for something (this is the relevant type of Perception used to find traps, unless you have the trap spotter rogue talent, which makes it reactive). This always takes at least a move action, but often takes significantly longer. The core rules don’t specify what area a PC can actively search, but for a given Perception check it should be no larger than a 10-foot-by-10-foot area, and often a smaller space if that area is cluttered.

So you can make a perception check as a free action to spot the goblins (if they're hiding, which might defeat their purpose of distracting you from the trap), or you can search as a move action in one particular part of the room, in which case you might not pick the one containing the traps.

Mark Hoover 330 wrote:
So I ask again... how DO I add traps to a fight? I need a way that doesn't drop half a dozen traps on the battlefield adding way too much XP to the budget of the fight

Maybe don't take XP budgets so seriously?

I once made a room with around a hundred traps in it (of several different sorts, such as "gust of wind that pushes you across the map, possibly triggering other traps") and had the PCs attacked by a Ratling while they were trying to work out the one safe path.

If I'd given full theoretical XP for that, they'd have levelled up like crazy.


Ok, obviously I hadn't seen this FAQ. I wish I had since several of my combats over the past 2 years have been partially foiled by the argument of "search for stimulus" from my players that I'd mentioned above.

That still leaves the question of the CRs. I mean, adding dozens of traps to a room and just not giving XP for the ones the PCs DIDN'T happen on... that seems naughty no? If I were going to actually SAY there were traps arbitrarily scattered through 90% of a room... couldn't I just say there was only ONE trap and regardless of what the PCs do/where they search it's in the ONE square they didn't think to look at?

Me: you enter the room

Rogue: I search this 10x10 section and clear it for traps

Me: you forgot to check the actual threshold of the door. The party takes... 28 damage as rocks fall from the ceiling

I don't know, I guess I'm just hesitant to "hide" things in the terrain and only reward the stuff they encounter. Still I do see your point and I'll try to get over myself.


Mark Hoover 330 wrote:
That still leaves the question of the CRs. I mean, adding dozens of traps to a room and just not giving XP for the ones the PCs DIDN'T happen on... that seems naughty no?

Do you give the PCs XP for monsters they don't meet?

My example was from a campaign where I didn't use XP so it wasn't an issue.

Trap XP is pretty abstract. Four CR1 pit traps aren't a CR5 encounter in the same way that four CR1 monsters are a CR5 encounter. The monsters will attack you all at once, making them far more dangerous than if they were in separate rooms. Traps in the same room sabotage one another, because once you find one, you're on your guard against any others.

Mark Hoover 330 wrote:
If I were going to actually SAY there were traps arbitrarily scattered through 90% of a room... couldn't I just say there was only ONE trap and regardless of what the PCs do/where they search it's in the ONE square they didn't think to look at?

You could, but if you do that sort of thing a lot the players will get suspicious.

You could also say "this is one trap with multiple triggers".


Matthew Downie wrote:
Trap XP is pretty abstract. Four CR1 pit traps aren't a CR5 encounter in the same way that four CR1 monsters are a CR5 encounter. The monsters will attack you all at once, making them far more dangerous than if they were in separate rooms. Traps in the same room sabotage one another, because once you find one, you're on your guard against any others.

Au contraire mon frère.

Two pit traps in a room, the players will stumble into the first and continue fighting the more imminent threat. Psychologically players will assume if they fell into a trap it was likely the only one in the room unless:

A) The room is parallel implying there may be one on the opposite side. (the mind likes balance)
B) They fall into a second trap in the same room, as then their danger sense will go off there may be more than one.
C) You've sadistically skinnerboxed them into that reaction by multiple times prior having trap-peppered rooms.


I remember something about reflex save/acrobatics check to fall if walking a ledge. So this may be a more dangerous map:
D=door
X
XXXX
XPPX
XPPX
XXXX
XPPX
XPPX
XXXX
X

Adding extra objects in the room might make it less noticeable or more likely to work.


Obstacles during fights is a nice way to make traps relevant for the whole party. If an archer ambushing the party from atop a hill has placed some caltrops/bear traps/whatever on the path leading up to him it makes a better encounter than rolling perception and disable device.


Linky-link to an awesome article about making traps not suck.

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