Skip to main content

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.)

Send comments and questions to or Tweet them @neversaydice2

Popular posts from this blog

Devouring "Roll for Sandwich"

Good timezone to Never Say Dice fans, adventures in Aardia, TikTok and beyond. No, I’m not the Roll for Sandwich guy (neither of us is), but if you haven’t heard of him already (or especially if you have), this week I wanted to talk about the TikTok/YouTube show Roll for Sandwich hosted by Jacob Pauwels. The premise is exactly what it sounds like: every episode, the host rolls dice to determine the various items that comprise a sandwich (except when the episode is about s’mores). He assembles the sandwich, then actually eats and critiques his random creation. If it sounds pretty niche to you... it is. You should  probably be both a bit of a foodie and a TTRPG fan in order to truly appreciate both the strange layered creations and the roleplaying references. My eldest son has been so interested in the web series that he decided he wanted to try doing it for himself. So, for the last week of summer this year, we took stock of our cupboards, made our own charts, and proceeded to consume

Be a Grinch! (in a Tabletop RPG)

The Holidays may be almost over (for a while), and we hope you’ve all enjoyed your seasonal music and movies/specials. We here at Never Say Dice have covered the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special and the new LEGO edition a few posts ago. A common thing many of us into tabletop RPGS like to do is incorporate media into our games. After all, many of us have grown up with the blending of media and the holidays as a given. It provides us a framework to build on and a common touchpoint to the people at our tables, virtual or otherwise. One classic character featured in holiday specials and commemorated in his own song is the Grinch, the avocado-green villain with strange cardiac growth problems apparently linked to his personality. The Grinch, villain though he may be, has a slew of characteristics that would make the character an excellent one at the gaming table. Those of you not familiar with Suess-lore may really only know the Grinch from the How the Grinch Stole Christmas animated

An Introduction to Risus

While roaming the internet in the late nineties/early noughties, I came across a TTRPG that was rules-lite and called itself “the anything RPG.” Want to play a high school cheerleader/samurai-in-training part-time goth enthusiast fast food cashier? The hot pink stick figure art glared back at me. Nah, not interested. But I was wrong. The stick figures were actually purple, and Risus is a surprisingly versatile, handy and down right fun TTRPG. I wouldn’t figure that out though till I discovered it again several years later. Even though it was written as a comedy system (and somewhat lighthearted response to GURPS) you really can use it for just about anything: space opera, high fantasy, pulp, vampires,western, any movie setting you could think of...seriously anything. You can read a far more detailed and interesting history in a number of other places should it strike your fancy. It is time for your Risus indoctrination introduction. Risus really is versatile and fairly easy to learn

Willy Wonka - Cartoonish Supervillian or Time Lord?

Every spring, in at least some of the religions practiced in the States, brings yet another holiday full of varied confections: Easter. For some reason, perhaps it’s the candy content or the garish colors associated with the holiday here, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory seems to be the movie that most often comes to my mind. While there are other pieces of media that are more “classically Easter” entries, Willy Wonka just seems to belong here. Perhaps there’s something to those giant eggs, as well. Whatever the reason, it’s in our common consciousness around this time of year, and that has had me thinking about a couple of common internet theories. One common thought is that the titular character Willy Wonka is an incarnation of Doctor Who ’s (only semi-titular) protagonist, the Doctor. The other would have you believe that Willy Wonka is a cartoonish supervillian originating in the DC universe, most likely one of Batman’s adversaries. For this post, let’s go over the arg