Guidance – Rules 101: Trapitty Trap

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about traps.

I’m going to come out and say it, folks: I abhor traps. I dislike them as a player and I dislike them as a GM. Why, you ask? Well, that’s the topic of today’s article of Guidance!

Traps as a Player

Traps suck as a player. They’re basically punishment for not being OCD with Perception checks, and because they use the Perception rules (which are already laden with over complicated modifiers and bonuses), they’re a million times more difficult to use. Here’s a brief summary of what you have to do in order to make traps work:

  • Searching for anything using Perception is a move action, so effectively you’re only able to take one move action a round while searching for traps. (Not that you’d want to move your full movement, just that you can).
  • When using Perception, the DC is actually based on how far away whatever it is you’re looking for is. So, for example, let’s say you’re using Perception to “look for traps.” Doing so is a move action, which allows you to make a Perception check. Let’s say your check result is 25; that 25 is compared to the Perception DC of all traps within 25 feet. Now, for every 10 feet that you are from whatever it is you’re looking for, you take a –1 penalty on your check. So that 25 become a 24 for traps 4 or 5 squares from you, a 23 for traps 6 or 7 squares from you, and so on.

This is literally what’s in the books under the Perception rules. Despite this, I see traps handled in a myriad of different ways at the table, both by players and GMs. Some players think that you need to actually be adjacent to the trap to spot it; that isn’t the case at all (although being closer certainly helps you spot it). But I digress, because it isn’t finding the traps that stinks as a player; its NOT finding them.

When you discover a trap, it typically runs down like this:

  • Roll Disable Device.
  • If successful, trap is disarmed! XP for everyone.
  • If failed by 5 or less, not disarmed but not triggered.
  • If failed by more than 5, DEATH TO ALL PCS!

Regardless, for many traps, once the trap is sprung, its game over. The vast majority of tricks aren’t resettable, and once they’ve run their course the PCs get XP and move on.

Or do they?

Traps as a GM

Traps suck as a GM. Their rules aren’t codified well in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. The Core Rulebook doesn’t even mention that traps grant an XP reward associated with their CR (that bit of knowledge is from the GameMastery Guide), and to the best of my ability I’ve been unable to find the conditions that grant XP to a party when facing a trap. I’ve seen two different camps online, as follows:

  • A player has to defeat a trap in order to gain its XP.
  • A player merely has to survive a trap in order to gain its XP.

Regardless of which of these is true, neither is very well-defined in game terms. In terms of “defeating a trap,” does that only mean disarming it? My buddy Justin loves to tell this story where he used his character’s ridiculous Armor Class to effectively keep a whirling axe trap at bay while the rest of the party ran through it; the ax blade smashed into his shield time and time again, round after round, and the other players all readied actions to run past Justin’s paladin after the attacks were made, while the trap was resetting, then from the other side they smashed the trap apart by attacking it with adamantine weapons and spells. That is absolutely brilliant, and they ultimately ran past the trap unscathed. I’d say they defeated it. But did they disarm it? Technically no.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk “surviving a trap.” One of the basic traps from the Core Rulebook that you can encounter is a baleful polymorph trap. You trigger it, it tries to transform you into an adorable, teeny little lizard. No matter what happens, the spell can’t kill you, right? So you technically survive it, right? But you still failed to stop the trap from doing something pretty horrible to you (transform you into a Tiny lizard), so should you get XP from THAT?

The final, annoying thing about traps is how QUICKLY they do their thing in the game. For most traps, its one trigger. One shot to do something terrible to the PCs. Traps are also, generally speaking, priced the same XP-wise as a full encounter, and they can be completely dismantled by a few skill checks. But let’s be honest, you can potentially avoid encounters with Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate too. But the different between talking down a fight and disarming a trap is that there’s nothing inherently dramatic about the later; trap disarming is essentially a save or suck effect, whereas with Charisma-based skills, you’re immediately aware of what happens when things turn sour (you fight), so even if its just as easy to talk your way out of a fight, there’s more drama there and more chance for storytelling and roleplaying. Disarming a trap is disarming a trap.

Now, I hate to leave a topic at, “This sucks, kill it with fire,” so what can we do to make a better trap?”

Haunts – The Better Trap

Since I first laid eyes on them, it became very clear that haunts are traps done right. Introduced in Rise of the Runelords, haunts formally became a Pathfinder thing in the GameMastery Guide, and although they got their start in the very first Pathfinder AP, they truly shine in the Carrion Crown AP (which I’m playing in right now). The GameMastery Guide describes haunts as a cross between undead and traps, and that’s true to a tee. They act in rounds and have hit points. Martial characters can often attack them, but certain skill checks can also be effective. In the end, a battle with a haunt often becomes an epic struggle to defeat the haunt before something terrible happens. More importantly, its something that ALL members of the party can contribute to. As a result, they’re much more dramatic and overall enjoyable encounters, and that’s really the key word here: ENCOUNTERS. A fight with a haunt is an encounter. A bout with a trap is often a several second affair.

Fixing Traps

So, how can we improve traps from a design standpoint? Well, for starters we need to separate traps into two separate categories; trap hazards and trap encounters. Trap hazards would function much like traps do today; they’re lesser traps and aren’t meant to be full-fledged encounters, just like a crumbling floor or a pit of lava is a hazard, but not an encounter. Trap encounters, on the other hand, are the real deal. Maybe they’re the construct-equivalent of haunts or something. They’re big contraptions that reward XP when you defeat them and provide ongoing challenges that everyone is expected to participate in. Trap hazards, on the otherh and, can be beaten by Disable Device, but much more mundane methods work too, like putting a plank over a pit or tying a rope to a sturdy edge to avoid being knocked down. But again, the important thing is that hazards wouldn’t give XP (or be considered an encounter) while encounter traps would be.

I think I might try to explore this concept down the road with my Everyman Gaming, LLC venue, but for now, that’s all I have to say about traps. What do you think? What has your experience with traps been like as a player and/or a GM? Has a trap ever ruined a game session or made it especially memorable? Am I crazy in regards to my thoughts on traps, or do you agree with me? Leave your answers below, and I’ll see you back at the Know Direction Network on Wednesday; Anthony’s out of town on his honeymoon, so I’m stepping in with a Craft Wondrous Item article so he can get his romance on in peace this week. Until then, take care!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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3 Comments

  1. I think my favourite trap the GM has ever sprung was a non-lethal simple one. He had set the president for traps being nasty and the possibility to one shot you, and the rogue was the greedy kind of guy that skimmed off the top of treasure chests. This was 3.5, in the level 10 range or so. The rogue is scouting ahead, comes across a door. Opens it, goes in (while checking for traps), and sees a button, and nothing else. The door shuts and a wall slides in front of the door, so he can’t get out. When he presses the button, red numbers appear above it, counting down from 10. 9, 8, 7, and be presses the button again, so it resets. He’s screaming for help, and the party melts down the wall next to the door. He jumps out, it reaches 0, and the wall slides away and the door opens. His face was PRICELESS.

    But I think traps are a valuable tool. A real should, at least imo, waste party resources. Be it the direct damage say or through the psychological trap above, eating up resources are the best and most memorable traps. So long as it does it in a cool way, I’m fine with traps. And I never play rogues.

  2. Darrell Vin Zant Reply to Darrell

    I consider traps to function much like mooks in an encounter, they are designed to drain party resources, or enhance a combat. The problem, is most people use stand alone traps in their encounters; just a trap, nothing more.

    Traps are best used in multiples, either multiple traps, or with other enemies. I mean, the classic Indiana Jones scene in the temple involves multiple traps triggering, not just a single one. Or the “hallway of doom” often seen in movies, like The Librarian, or Galaxy Quest are all multiple traps.

    For example, putting an inflict light wounds trap in a room with skeletons will deal damage to the party, while healing the skeletons. Or a lightning bolt trap in a room with Shambling Mounds. Traps used right enhance encounters, traps used as stand-a-lone encounters are no different than a single brutish monster in a room by itself.

  3. I actually do like traps myself, but I have a taste for old-school style play, where you crawl through a dungeon with the traps whittling you down (and it’s assumed you won’t be returning across dangerous territory, all the way back to town to restock). I agree with the comments above regarding traps as resource-drainers.

    I must be a masochist, because I get a kick out of something nasty happening to my character(s). If I happened to lose a character to a death trap, I might find it an entertaining story rather than a negative experience.

    You’re right that there are some variances in how people run them. When GMing, I tend to lean towards, “you only get your perception check when you’re quite close or adjacent to the trap.” To me, spotting a small pressure-plate in a stone floor 40 feet away stretches credulity. That might be a problem with Perception in general, rather than traps though. The skill is ok, as it accounts for distance with penalties, but I’ve always thought that smaller things should have an increased distance penalty, and larger things should have a decreased distance penalty, even after accounting for simply “size”, as with stealth. Maybe there should be a maximum distance that items/creatures of small-size X can be detected using the skill?

    I also like traps in the middle of encounter areas when there are monsters around. A minotaur in a dungeon is shooting you with a crossbow, and when you charge him, bam!, the last square is a pit trap, and now he’s looking down at you. Even if it sucked, that would be memorable.

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