Wednesday, June 12, 2019


Traps are a fetish.

Earlier today, Dennis Laffey posted about them, citing a few comments from this blog.  There he discusses the logic of traps, their general value and how we ought to consider them.  My feeling is that he skips over certain factors about traps; factors that we'd rather skip over because, to be frank, they spoil the show.

If we can forget for a moment the irrationality of moving parts still in a state where not only can they function after centuries, but apparently reset themselves, how was this trap even made?

This is screenshot from the movie, just as Indy dives for the floor.  Note the slot on the same floor.  Here's the same shot a split second later:

This is the second blade cutting across the floor [apparently, it's not enough to kneel before god, it's also important to forward roll immediately thereafter ~ I don't remember that move in church, but to see a whole congregation doing it would have been pretty funny].

Where is this light coming from?
Again, how was this trap made?  We get a shot of these wooden gears above what appears to be a pit, but Indy doesn't give this possible accessway a glance.

It's painfully evident from both shots that the center of the blade is equal with the rock face, which means the fulcrum of the blade would have to skim the edge of the rock ~ the need to provide the folcrum with space would have made a huge slot in the rock that would have been immediately obvious.  And where exactly is the mechanism?  Buried in solid rock?  Plus I must point out the glistening quality of the steel, plus the SIZE of the blades, whom someone brilliantly fashioned on an anvil to be so perfectly flat that it would disappear in a slot so narrow it isn't supposed to be visible.

But ... NONE of that matters, because it isn't supposed to matter.  We're supposed to overlook it, because this is fantasy adventure, because the Grail isn't real either, so who really gives a shit?  The film insists that we are supposed to just go with it, because it's fun.

But here's the thing.  The Last Crusade spends about half an hour of screen time doing everything it can to feed the theory that the Cup, for all it's magical properties, is real.  We're fed a steady stream of semi-literate history, we're pounded with the magnificent genius of these two archeologists, his dad's life work, the incredible research it took to get the diary together, the necessity to have this profoundly detailed and researched diary ... all to feed our sense of immersion and believability.  And after all that, we're shown these two ridiculous blades and told, "Hey, look, fuck it, it's fun, don't pay too much attention."

Uh uh.  Stories don't work that way.  You don't get to spend an inordinate amount of time building credibility here so you can piss it all away there, and have me turn a blind eye.

Here's our next trap.  I won't go into the use of "Iohovah" being used by Crusader soldiers (which is a diatribe in itself), or that if "J" was the first letter, that small "E" is a long, long way away.

[and I thought Indy read the book; you know, the book that explained everything?  Was it written "J" in the book?  No, I don't think so]

Oh well, I'll continue on the mechanics presented.  So we have the fakeroo, we get to see Indy almost fall ... giving us this shot:

It is plain to see that there is no supporting pillar for the "I" that he has to step on to get past ... so how was this floor laid?  If with scaffolding, how was the wood removed, and why aren't we getting into the tomb that way?  And how is Indy hanging on, if the whole floor is unsupported?  Shouldn't the whole floor simply give way?

I presume this is a continuation of the earlier passageway behind the gears ... but again, where the hell is all this light coming from?  And why is this room lit from above?

Yeah, yeah, adventure, fun, suppress logic, blah blah blah.

How was this floor painted?  To get the right perspective would have been a clever trick, given that the only access is the bridge itself.  Scaffolding again?  Okay, so where is all the wood.  Plus, we have that downward light, which looks like sunlight.  Couldn't we just rapel into this cave at this point?  Would have saved us a lot of trouble, what with the grail crossing the seal and all that.

But yes, the plot had to show that Indy was worthy.  So the traps had to be about worthiness ... those good ol' American values like being able to perform gymnastics, spell and

The trip around the barn is to emphasize that where it comes to traps, we don't care if it makes sense.  Any of us who have been around at least five years have seen our share of nonsensical traps, and puzzles, and combinations of the two, ignoring the engineering marvel that would be necessary to put in traps that, apparently, a group of high school level students can solve and get around.  This is not a practical way to block or at least stymie access.

It doesn't begin with the movies, either (though everything from camp Batman back to cheezy films from the 1930s would have influenced the godfathers of RPGs).  The traps generation table shown is emblematic of the same problem.  There isn't room in the book to explain how any of these traps actually work, how complex, or heavy, or intricate the workings are, where the gas comes from, how exactly the door falls outward of the illusionary wall sustains itself when magic spells and wands have a shelf time, etcetera. We're expected to take these things at face value, it's just a game, the arrows just shoot out or the oil just falls from somewhere.

Yet that hypocrite Gygax writes this for the DM on page 20, when it's YOU making the trap:  "Whenever a thief or assassin character desires to set a trap, require him or her to furnish you a simple drawing to illustrate how the trap will function."

When those drawings of traps began to appear in the Dragon Magazine, then in various modules and splatbooks, it was plain to any thinking person that these Rube Goldbergs were farcical in concept and for their intended purpose.

Proper trap making is not about big, complicated death traps with multiple moving parts.  If we really want to lay down traps to keep people out, it's all about the numbers, baby.  Lots of traps, designed to wear soldiers down and wear on their resolve.  And no, I'm not talking about "contact poison," which was a huge and constant rage all through the 1980s before quietly going away.  Poison takes very little time to dry and become inert.  But dozens, scores, of simple, spiky, stabby little traps, with bamboo and hawthorne coated in feces, will make a hall unpleasant even after you know what's there.

But we don't want to make traps like that, because it's not "fun."  It's not silly.  It's not a challenge.  It's not "adventure."

Key point here.  When people start using the word "adventure" as an argument, we might as well paint unicorns on the road signs.


Tedankhamen said...

What do you make of the old Grimtooth's traps supplements, Alexis? I always thought they were gimmicky and part of the whole killer DM trope. I always thought the LotR 'Speak friend & enter' trap was amazing. It is historically grounded in the game world (gentler times I think Gandalf says), technoligically possible, and the threat of both pursuing orcs and the water thing is there.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I remember the greedy eyes of my fellow DMs goggling as they feverishly turned the pages of the Grimtooth's periapt, as if their players wouldn't mount an insurrection immediately were any of them actually used. The "killer DM" period was far more relevant and influential upon the game's development that ever was the satanic panic nonsense, yet who ever speaks of it, condemns it, questions the psychological motivation of DMs who masturbated over their capacities to accomplish it?

I would have been more affected, perhaps, by the "Speak friend and enter" riddle if I hadn't been 11 in 1975, so that I heard the line repeated ad nauseum by the "Frodo Lives!" crowd long before I ever read the book. Thus, the line was spoiled for me before I'd reached puberty. I don't much like riddles. They always seem like the sort of game that smug wannabe intellectuals turn to as proof of their superiority (until you know the answer) because there is no real capacity there to discuss actual questions of purpose, being, ethics or theory.

I'll be honest with you, Tedankhamen. I don't know why I'm not moved by traps. It always seems that everything wildly popular about D&D proves to be dull as dishwater to me. I don't even like the idea of players being on "an adventure." That seems very juvenile and hokey to me, like being asked to get excited because we're going to sit around a fire tonight and sing Kum-ba-yah. I have no idea what these adults are on about, with this fascination for traps and other silly things like puzzles or riddles.

Why can't we talk about usurping thrones, conquering a neighboring country and forcing our enemies to accept our faith, our form of government and our godlike status?

Gee. I'm on an adventure. I get to open a door, deactivate a trap and solve a puzzle. How thrilling.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I want to problem solve.

Lance Duncan said...

The speak friend and and enter sequence is set up as a riddle, even though the builders obviously didn't intend it to be one. All that someone needed to do to open the door was to read the message out loud in the language it was written. Gandalf just translated it to the language everyone spoke instead of reading it in elvish. It was less a riddle and more a passphrase.

I don't remember where, but I think I read somewhere that riddles were not historically something to be solved but something that was memorized. Many people these days just know the riddle of the sphinx, and some the riddles from the Hobbit and other places. It's more of a memory game than a puzzle. Can I remember the answer, I know I've heard this before? Etc.

Traps don't really show up in my games(besides what might be in a module) apart from the basic pit trap that is easily detectable. I can never find a logical trap that would work and be easily bypassed and a reason for it to be there in the first place.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Look up the word "shibboleth." A truly impossible puzzle to solve without the mental key, like the German enigma machine, makes a logical "trap" ... but not the sort that D&D purists desire.

James said...

Traps also ruin games. They kill momentum as players either get paranoid and check everywhere for traps, or get frustrated by continially triggering traps.

They have some value, as simple trsps in areas actively being defended by a unified force, but players should be able to rationalize whether it makes sense for a given area to be trapped.

Riddles are even worse. What do you do if the players can't solve it? Are you okay with saying "well, no dungeon for you, you can't get in." If so, riddles are okay, but most gaming groups don't like that idea, so there will be some second way in that begs the question "why is this riddke here."

Tyler said...

I restrict my traps to those that grant information and those that delay intruders. The former are usually alarms or surveillance, and the latter are usually temporary obstructions. Both require someone to benefit from the trap existing, such as someone to notice an alarm and take action or someone trying to make an escape where time matters.

I find these restrictions enable me to create believable traps.