Tricks and traps have been a part of most Tabletop RPGs since the first dragon set up house in the first dungeon. RPG tricks, (including deceptions and distractions), and traps, (including all kinds of pits, poisons or spikes), are intended to set players 'on the spot' challenges and/ or wear down players' adventurers between encounters.
Unfortunately, many RPG tricks and traps are a lot more mechanical trap than intriguing trick. So much so that major RPG titles like Pathfinder and AD&D 4e Dungeonmaster's Guide 2 include sections on traps alone. Tricks seem to have fallen by the wayside to some extent. However, without some trickery all those poisoned dart traps, bottomless pits, multi-monster ambushes and flooding chambers can soon become tiresome and repetitive.
If used too often traps make nervous adventurers inch their way through dungeons taking endless precautions for fear of a Total Party Kill (TPK) around every corner. Whole scenarios and campaigns can even grind to a halt, as over-zealous Gamesmasters (GMs) use traps to deny player choice as a consequence of failing to anticipate or outwit a single trap.
In other words, frequent mechanical traps often lead to slower gameplay, frustrated players and a loss of campaign continuity. Hidden mechanical traps, compulsory puzzles and magical traps are even worse, as players feel cheated by a lack of warningand/ or a loss of player choice.
Despite the 'down side', traps have been known to work well when player's are equipped with the resources to offset or overcome challenges, along with some idea of when to keep their guard up.
Tricks, (including disguises, feigns, forgeries, feigning injury, cheating at games and sports, 'gremlins and gargoyles', golems and other animates, magic wells and mystical fountains), can be difficult to 'pull off', as it's necessary to find some middle ground between being too obvious and creating impossible challenges.
Nevertheless, tricks are easy to link to plot hooks, present a wider range of outcomes than mechanical traps and often offer more of a challenge than checking to avoid a scything blade. Tricks can also deliver genuine surprises and novelty in a way that a plain trap cannot.
For example, retrieving a golden idol wired to mechanical and magical traps simply involves testing a player's character against the rules. Discovering that the golden idol is lead coated in gold paint, then locating the real idol opens up more options for players, their characters and GMs.
So, it looks like it's about time tricks made a comeback to the point where rule sets refer to both tricks and traps 'in the same breath'. Meanwhile, there appear to be a few straightforward approaches to findingplenty of good uses for inventive tricks and traps.
Bolt-on traps appear contrived and aimed at grinding players down. Tricks and traps that 'make sense' slot into play seamlessly. For example, adventurers pursing hunters through the hunters' territory can reasonably expect to come across improvised traps, false trails, camouflaged opponents and hunters' traps, e.g. jaw traps and snares.
It's much easier for tricks and traps to make sense if they're built-in during early campaign and scenario planning. Linking them to opponents, locations and plot hooks at this stage not only helps each trick or trap to make sense, it also gives them a place at the adversarial 'top table' alongside monsters and non-player characters (NPCs).
Trick or Trap
Mechanical traps can add a different form of combat or combat challenge, but this usually simply tests the player character/ s (PC) against the rules. A subtle deception or a clever decoy can add much more in terms of encouraging roleplaying, revealing 'the unexpected', presenting 'real world' challenges and asking players to seek creative solutions. It, therefore, seems worth asking if each trap might best be replaced by a trick. Not with the intention of removing every trap, but to let tricks and traps play off each other until players aren't sure whether to expect a trap, a trick or a treat next.
Tricks and Traps
Combining tricks and traps often works to good effect when they're taken as an opportunity to increase the challenges an encounter offers, e.g. a false trail leading to quicksand overlooked by a wounded archer hiding in a tree. The archer could be a deadly marksman at the top of his game, but there's probably more fun in presenting a limited threat while players struggle with the quicksand than picking-off half the party with poisoned arrows.
If tricks and traps are about challenging players to find solutions it's essential to offer options that go beyond the purely mechanical. Solutions to tricks and traps can reward interacting with the rules, (rule-centred outcomes), interacting with the environment, (player-centred solutions), and 'character consistent' actions, (PC-centred behaviours).
Ideally, all three methods are available and open to being combined. For example, our wounded archer could be blasted out of his tree by a spellcaster, the tree could be chopped down using axes, or an impetuous barbarian might immediately scale the tree. Alternatively, a thoughtful spellcaster might use a spell to chop down the tree and position the trunk to form a bridge across the quicksand.
It can take some time for players to get used to how tricks and traps can deliver challenges. After a while they'll come to expect tricks and traps that 'make sense', 'fit in' and reward imaginative solutions. Until then it may be necessary to offer prompting in the form of subtle clues and hints. For example, an experienced player might be curious about twisted branches left along the trail of a skilled opponent and ask whether they've been pushed aside or snapped deliberately. A new player may need to be invited to take a closer look at the branches.
Luring players towards killer traps, (with major campaign and gameplay outcomes), leaves little room for challenging players, risks frustrating players, can kill off plot lines and often reduces player choice. There are any number of ways for tricks and traps to cause delay, damage, discomfort, embarrassment or confinement, (amongst other options). Almost all of these are likely to be more entertaining than plunging sharpened stakes through a player's favourite PC without warning.
Traps and tricks seem at their best when they encourage co-operation and collaboration. Players who need to make shared choices, find shared solutions and rescue one another are probably having a good game.