Does Sanderson's law apply to traps?

A while ago we discussed Sanderson’s laws of magic, one of which is that an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic. We extended the conclusion to kisses and fistfights (Your current RPG campaigns - #87 by Agemegos)

I think that something of the sort can be said about traps and puzzles. They don’t create and resolve tension if we don’t understand them and how they get defeated, i.e. if characters do it using game mechanics.

On a point that is barely related: some times we spend a fortune of character points on Thief skill so that our character can look cool defeating all the traps. And sometimes we do it to render traps trivial so that we don’t have to deal with the silly things. We never do it so that we can be starved of points to look cool in fight scenes and get beaten by the traps anyway because the GM has simply scaled the difficulty numbers to our skill.

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Hmm. Up to a point.

I mean, classic D&D fighting is all about game mechanics. (Not just your basic roll to hit, roll damage, but the ideas of party arrangement, getting the thief into position to backstab, when you use which spell, and so on.) They’re game mechanics that are easy to visualise at least to the level of realism you’d see in a film, but the rules may well ask you to do things that don’t feel plausible or realistic even granting the magic.

I wonder whether the answer is simply complexity. Torg had a system for long complicated tasks: you’d split them into stages and there’d be rewards and penalties at each step. I don’t think a game needs to ask the player to learn trap-ology to make disarming traps game-mechanically satisfying, as long as there’s some kind of minigame in there which the player can enjoy, some sophistication more than “roll Traps, pass/fail”.

I’ve played RPGs that had complex rules and multi-stage tasks for persuasion, seduction, diagnosis and repair, suborning electronic security, “hacking” computer systems. I never found that they gave much satisfaction unless I understood something and made at least one consequential choice.

D&D fights confound our understanding of fights in other causal sets, such as movies and combat sports. They aren’t realistic, and we don’t apply our understanding of realistic or real fights to them. But we do understand them of their own terms. They have fathomable causality to them.

I think we’re agreeing here: the game-fight needn’t be realistic as long as it works on its own terms. Why do you think the other minigame mechanisms you’ve mentioned didn’t work in the same way?

If characters do it only using game mechanics. The tradition I learned for dungeons always involved asking “how does the trap work?” When I use them as a GM, which is rarely, I make sure to decide approximately how they work, so that I can describe them. Disarming them is done with a skill roll by the character, although a clever (or stupid) idea from the player of how to go about it gives a modifier.

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They offered no or little possibility of a player make choices on the basis of an understanding of the causal situation. Just a lot of die-rolls in a fixed sequence.

One pattern that I could see being usefully borrowed from RPG combat: the character has an array of abilities (skills, tools, whatever). The player examines the situation and decides which ability to use. This will get through fast but noisily; that will take longer and be less certain but make no noise and leave no trace. And so on.

I think you also get satisfaction by building up the tension as to WHY they need to solve it. If they’ve got unlimited time and resources to work out the trap, then there is almost little point in any rolling of dice at all, if you ask me.

However, if they need to get across this corridor because a big ogre is coming for them and is going to squish them if he catches them, then you get tension from describing what happens as they fail the dice role, (ogre comes closer etc), sometimes to the point where legging it over the trap and hoping for the best is the answer!

This is an rpg conundrum beyond just traps. If we just focus on fighting, as characters progress and get better at fighting, the opposition tends to scale up along with them and the players don’t feel they’ve gotten anywhere.

It behooves the GM to add variety. Include fights that are easy but would have been tough earlier in the PCs’ careers. Throw in tough opponents that require new skills and tactics that the PCs’ now have access to. Mix in opponents that are nigh impossible to defeat unless you know the secret to its defeat, such disabling the device from which it draws its power.

Fights give players the ability to apply their own tactical skills and mastery of the rules. You could just reduce the fight to a single (or a few) skill checks like we do everything else and some games do. The flip-side, adding in tactical options and rules complexity for non-combat actions like disabling traps or interrogating suspects, is less common, but you do see games with “social combat” rules.

How much player skill and cleverness do you want to bring to disabling traps? Should they be a puzzle for the players to solve? And how do you handle non-trap puzzles in general?

What role do you want traps to play in the game? In published scenarios, traps tend to feel like add-ons plunked down to let the rogue shine and/or to drain PC resources (hit points and healing spells/potions). Personally, I don’t find them that fun.


Very true! There are a couple of remedies, which you mention. Players still feel that their characters look cool if they are defeating foes they they could not have done earlier, or that NPCs cannot handle, or if they are wading through foes that used to challenge them on their way to the new challenges. (I ran a fantasy campaign once in which the PCs ended up so outrageously über that I assigned terrain values to different troops types. Those PCs moved through hoplite formations slower and with more fatigue than through peltast formation, and through peltasts slower than through open ground. And though they were fighting on near-equal terms with enemy avatars, the manifestations of middling gods, and small dragons, it still felt like something to circle around an army not because the army might beat you but because beating it would take too long.)

What is more to the point is that a fight against well-matched foes can retain interest despite stat inflation because the tactics (even if they are unrealistic) are fathomable, varied, and require use to make choices based on our understanding. When our characters win or lose a fight we understand why, whether it was a decisive blow of luck, or our tactical experiments worked, or having the SLAP ammo on hand saved our bacon. When there is nothing to it but a skill level, a difficulty number, and a die roll it doesn’t provide (me, at least) the same satisfaction.

So we have to decide what mechanical depth we want in the non-combat aspects of the game. If a typical combat takes 30 minutes, do we want disabling a trap to take that long? And how to do you get the participation of the entire group like we do in combat?

Or we can decide to focus our gaming attention on the things that players understand, like fights, courtships, and spell-lists.

  • Is there a way to do “physical penetration” like a spell system?
  • Can physical penetration and trap-picking be made complementary to and synchronous with fighting, as casting Sleep spells and fireballs is?

As an example that I think is generally considered not to work well: netrunning in Cyberpunk, which can come down to “the GM and one player play their minigame, which the rest of the players sit around and wait”. The solution there is to involve the netrunner with the environment: they’re riding along with the physical intrusion, opening doors, disabling alarms, and so on. Which is what Agemegos just suggested.

Is it that a trap should take 30 minutes or that a “trap-based encounter” should take 30 minutes?

That players think they understand… :slight_smile: I mean, if you strip off the mechanics, a lot of players have no experience at all with weapon-based combat, courtly love was considered a maze even by contemporaries who lived with it while high-class marriages are more about property than about the principals, and I’ve never met a game magic system that was more than mildly consistent with anyone’s understanding of actual magic. (The best is probably the one from GURPS Voodoo which became Path/Book magic.)

So what do players think they understand about traps? It’s a delicate process and if the fighter farts at the wrong moment it could all go horribly wrong. It needs specialised tools.

Do a search on Youtube for “physical penetration” and watch some fun videos!

There is no way I’m searching for a term like that! :open_mouth:

Work computer?

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Wouldn’t the Cyberpunk mixed physical and net intrusion usually be one character netrunning and a bunch doing physical things? The analogue of that would be not a “trap-based encounter” but an encounter that involved traps as a secondary feature. I’m trying to imagine one character dealing with traps while other characters are simultaneously doing other things but I don’t really see it.

Traps work better in fiction because in fiction it doesn’t matter much if one character is doing everything, and a lot of the time a mission is carried out by one character anyway, e.g. Indiana Jones’ famous teaser scene.

But not all stories make good RPGs. In those stories which do make good RPGs, traps in my experience struggle to find a niche. They’re usually pointless both in-game and out: if they aren’t going to make a party run away, what are they for?

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Here’s a comic from Oglaf, about a trap in a dungeon.

This one is safe for work, but most Oglaf strips depict sex and nudity.

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That is one of my favourites, and I think also an example of a complex trap-based encounter.

They’re for bringing the action to a screeching halt and forcing all the players out of character.