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Telling Tales of Traps

The season has come once again for the Home Alone movies to make their run on our viewing devices. There's something powerful when you’re a kid about seeing children your age in media take on and defeat adults. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that this movie worked for me so well when it first came out. After all, Kevin/Macaulay and I are around the same age, and not only does he run the house for a few days, but he also defends it from the wet bandits. The movie(s) even entertain and inspire my own children. My older son can often be found studying and making his own battle plans, and my younger guy is usually making traps around the house - just in case bad guys show up. Somehow, though the premise laughs louder and louder at the suspension of disbelief the older it gets, the movie still stands the test of time for holiday entertainment. Maybe it will survive for future generations out of the nostalgia of parental figures, or maybe it will slowly fade into obscurity. For now, though, we can use it to our advantage and inspire our tabletop gaming traps! - A

B: Traps are one of those things everyone associates with tabletop RPGs ("I check the room for traps"), and with good reason - they’ve been there since the beginning! Gary Gygax’s primary inspiration in creating Dungeons and Dragons were Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, which are frequently centered around tomb raiding and the collection of treasures. In this context, a trap set by a dungeon’s builders/original inhabitants offers a way to interact with the protagonists from beyond the grave (hopefully) offering a puzzle as cleverly made as the treasures they guard.

Given their ubiquity, it’s easy to see why players would want to turn the tables and devise traps of their own - it gives them an opportunity to make their own mark on the world beyond the effects of their adventuring, particularly if there are any active (or aspiring) GMs in the group. And besides, I’m certain that there’s a large crossover between people who are into tabletop RPGs and people drawn to ridiculous contraptions.

A: Traps in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons have a few difficulty settings: Setback, Dangerous and Deadly. For something like Home Alone, the traps that set for Harry and Marv would be considered Setbacks or Dangerous... though in real life many of them would be Deadly. Some of the movie's traps do have direct correlation to ones already established in-game, with notables being the Micromachines acting the same as a bag of ball bearings, or the blow torch functioning as a form of fire-breathing statue. Others aren’t hard to imagine achieving with spell effects like Heat Metal on a door knob or using Control Water to frost over a set of steps. As long as you keep the difficulty low, you can be sure that going through a few of these can keep the game interesting and fun without getting too serious.

Letting the players set up the traps can be a daunting thought, but there are different scenarios that might lead to just that situation. Having the players set up a security system for a noble's house, setting up their own keep for protection, or quickly setting up a few options during an escape are just a few ideas. As long as you’re clear with your players (and players of the GM), what you would like to accomplish during a session, telling a tale of traps can be entertaining for all. And while holiday movies make it easy to just sit down and veg out, keeping people entertained at the table can be a bit tougher - you want to keep everyone just as engaged. One thing to do is pass off the dice: there's nothing preventing you from letting the players roll damage themselves, or even roll checks on behalf of the burglars (or other ne'er do wells) trying to breach the defenses. If you’ve already had the players do some of their set-up in advance, it can even be a really great way to lead into a short future session or end a game with a (possibly literal) bang.  

B: One potential downside with player-created traps is the risk of something GMs rarely get to experience for themselves: things going according to plan. As GMs, we get the players and all the consequences of their actions to keep things interesting, but players are going to want to experience for themselves what it feels to have their cleverness rewarded... with enough of the unexpected to hold their attention.

One approach can be to allow their first traps to succeed unambiguously - the thrill just from pulling something off can be enough of a dopamine hit for a scene to be worthwhile on its own. For trapping efforts beyond that, though, the GM should be making their own  plans to shake things up a little. Keep in mind what the players intend to achieve with their machinations and decide whether it's their goal gets complicated (the wrong bad guy/monster or an ally shows up) or whether it's their process getting confounded (something in their lunatic clever scheme breaks or goes wrong). Failure should be a real possibility after that first "freebie" attempt, but the effects of that failure should be seen either through a change in what they’re trying to achieve or in the means by which they're trying to - it should go beyond being a simple failed die roll: the rope they're going to need later snaps, the land mine fails to go off and reveals their presence to the guards, the guy they meant to knock out and capture ends up getting killed... every trap is a tiny story of its own, but they always tie back to the larger one you're all telling.

A: Obviously, there are a few things that can always go wrong when telling tales of traps, but with some careful planning it can be incredibly rewarding. You don’t have to just take inspiration from Home Alone either. There are any number of movies and comics out there, from horror to pulpy adventures, featuring traps you can use for your own stories. You can’t tell me you haven’t thought about putting up a series of a giant rolling balls, poison darts, and spike pits to run your players through like they're Indiana Jones. Just make sure, as with most of our other advice, that you communicate with your group about everyone expectations - then you can set off as many traps as your heart (and group) desires. This is it. Don’t get scared now.. get out there and break some dice! (D4s would also make an excellent caltrop-style trap, by the way.)

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