I’ll start this off by stating the most basic truth: I’m not a huge fan of traps in dungeon design. I think that, more often than not, it’s an easy and lazy way to add difficulty or challenge to a dungeon. Also, it’s not realistic to have numerous doors and chests and floor panels and ceilings all loaded with traps if the “dungeon” area is inhabited. Now, I won’t say that traps aren’t useful and sometimes logical – I’ll get to that in a bit. However, I do want to discuss some things that I’ve seen in published adventures, in games run by friends, and in my own early (and embarrassing) attempts at designing dungeons that, when one thinks about the dungeon as a living area, makes having lots of traps kind of silly.
The Dungeon is Alive. Not literally, in most cases. But the dungeon, or as I’ve taken to calling it, “Adventure Area Prime”, is more often than not a living area. Someone or something inhabits it. Has a tribe of Kua-Toa taken up residence in an ancient temple in a forgotten location? Okay, if that’s the case, and they go about their daily lives there, then having a “lot” of traps proves problematic, right? Daily life makes it difficult to have traps everywhere. Eventually, some innocent soul will trigger the trap. Let’s be honest – a klutz will walk into a trip wire. A drunk will stagger or fall onto a weighted floor panel. A curious child will try to open the “special” door. It’s just not something that is conducive to a group of beings living their lives in a location.
The same could be said for a normal castle or keep. Most castle defenses do not have numerous trapped doors or floor panels. The “traps” will include murder holes (passages where there are thin slits in the walls so that archers can stand in the small passages behind them and fire arrows at invaders) or higher areas where soldiers can pour boiling oil onto invaders. Perhaps there will be a dry moat (a large trench filled with thorns through which a secret escape passage exists). But it is unlikely that there will be numerous trapped doors or trip wires or other such traps as mentioned in most RPG rulebooks. Why? Because the chance of innocent people setting them off is too high for comfort. And should the “wrong people” accidentally set it off (read: family members of rival nobility and/or clergy), then it can cause some trouble for the castle/keep owner.
But there’s Magic! Stop this right there! I know what you’re thinking: “This is a world where magic exists and can ‘recognize’ invaders from inhabitants. So there!” Oh really? So we’re going to go with the “It’s magic” explanation again? Am I the only one who realizes how lazy that is for game design? And I used to use this as a young DM. It’s easy and convenient – magic can do what we need it to do. However, as I grew and got an education, I started to see magic as a force of nature in a fantasy world. As such, it is systematic. There are rules that govern its workings. Otherwise, wizards wouldn’t need to study and learn – they could just do things.
But yes, there is magic, and certainly, some dungeons could have magically-enhanced guard systems that recognize and distinguish inhabitant from invaders. That could be something to incorporate as a plot device. After all, what happens when the local lord “forgets” to pay the wizard who designed this system? But something like this should be used as a plot hook – and not as a regularity. Unless the world is super-high magic where almost everyone has some innate ability to use magic, which is a world I would find interesting for only five minutes. If everyone has power, then power becomes meaningless.
So when can there be lots of traps? Well, in my opinion – and this is just my opinion – there are a few instances when lots of traps are sensible. The owner of the dungeon is paranoid or suffers from some other mental issue that warrants it. The dungeon houses either a holy or unholy relic that must be guarded against being taken by “the wrong people”. The “dungeon” is a battlefield.
Paranoid Owners. Think back to The Tomb of Horrors. Acererak the demi-lich is quite insane. He also wants lots of magical items. So, he designed his tomb in such a way as to lure adventurers (who will possess lots of magical items) to their doom in order to increase his hoard. If the owner/inhabitant of a dungeon is paranoid, has a persecution complex, fearful, or even just greedy, he or she or it might place tons of traps within the dungeon in order to either provide protection or to kill intruders for some other reason. Even without an insane demi-lich, this is the logic behind a bandit stronghold having traps on most of the entrances; they want to keep people out.
Guarding Powerful Relics. So what if the dungeon is the resting place for something like The Holy Grail or one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes? Well, having lots of traps here would make sense. Whoever placed the artifact in this dungeon wants to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the “wrong people”. Who are these people? They could be those who are morally unworthy. They could be enemies of the Dark Lord. They could be followers of the Dark Lord. It depends on the designer’s purpose. It’s easier to protect such relics for long periods of time with traps than it is to do so with hired soldiers/guardians. Also, having skeletons lying around next to “sprung” traps is a cheap and easy way to either build tension or to throw the party off guard.
Battlefields. Is the dungeon area the site of a recent (say 1-2 generations old at most) battlefield? Then there could be traps such as punji sticks in pits or minefields or something similar could still be in the area and could still be armed and active. Even with the battle over, such things, sadly, tend to be left behind. Doing this allows you to add a sense of realism to the history of your campaign world.
So What? In conclusion, I suppose what I’m arguing for is thoughtful dungeon design. I know that most rulebooks and GM Guide sections will instruct GMs to think about the purpose of the dungeon, but few really explain how planning traps can impact that purpose. If the dungeon is to be believable, then everything in it needs to make sense. People often talk of movement and patrol patterns, but the existence, placement, frequency, and type of traps also impacts the sense of realism of the dungeon. If every room has a trap, eventually the players will call “foul!” on the GM. The same is true of every room having a riddle/puzzle or combat encounter.
So, yes, I think there should be fewer traps in dungeons. I’ve almost totally abandoned their use – except in the situations described above, which I try to limit my use of such things in frequency. I also have found that when I use a lot of traps, it becomes easy for me to shift into a competitive mentality where I become the players’ opponent. And I do not like adversarial tone at my table. I like to set the tone of cooperative storytelling. I will throw things at them that will test them and challenge them, but it is not my intention to kill them. Does that happen? Sure, sometimes the dice roll that way. And honestly, I would rather have a more interesting role-playing encounter or combat session than a long list of traps to have them contend with. Traps don’t make for exciting stories to tell later – but encounters that engage them intellectually and have meaning do make for great stories.