Checking for Traps is Bullshit

Someone dressed as a roman legionaire carefully opening a potentially trapped chest.
Image taken from the Ultima Wiki

Earlier this evening, I was GMing a game of my D&D&LB campaign. The game consisted of the players trying to escape from a tower where they had been imprisoned. This was the third session of them working to escape this tower, and I’ve been happy with their performance. They’ve had a few slipups and bad judgement calls, have lost all of their hirelings and a PC, but have nevertheless held it together and survived with barely any time to rest or recover their health or spells. I’ve been hard on them, and they’ve succeeded despite that.

Halfway through this session, they entered a room with three chests in it. Eager to be on their way, but unable to pass up this tantalizing prize, they decided to loot the chests. One of the players stood guard while the magic user tested the lid of each chest with a sword. All were locked. The MU (our newest player), then asked if he could test for traps with the sword. I replied that he could poke around, but that many lock traps were activated by the tumblers within the lock, so the sword would be too big to test for those. With no other recourse, the rogue stepped up. She checked for traps, and I rolled to see if she found any, because I don’t like the players to know if they rolled high or low for this kind of thing. She rolled very low, and in turn, I told her that there were no traps she could detect. She then told me that she was putting on a pair of leather gloves, and would then like to pick the lock.

At this point it fell to me to inform her that a poison needle shot out of the locking mechanism, and injected her with a 4d6 Intelligence draining poison. Since the party was trapped in this tower, with dozens of bandits between them and a half-day’s march into town, it was time for her to make a save versus poison, or face nearly certain death.

But I couldn’t do that to her.

One of the most important philosophies I’ve taken from my reading in the OSR, is that players should be able to avoid death through intelligent play. That saving throws should only be called for if the player has made a mistake. But as far as I can see, this player didn’t make any mistakes. She did everything right, tested everything thoroughly, even put on an ineffectual pair of gloves for extra protection, and now I was supposed to kill her for it. Had I gone through with it, I think that player would have been fully justified in being angry. I think she would have been right to believe that her choices had not meaningfully affected whether her character lived or died, which is the grossest violation of player agency in my view.

It could be argued, of course, that before opening any chests, an intelligent player would have antitoxins on hand. An even more intelligent player would make sure someone else was always the one to open chests. The most intelligent player is the one who never leaves the starting town, and becomes rich through economic prowess. If the game is about adventure, it seems counter productive to create an environment where players can never feel safe opening the next door, or looting the next chest.

I was silent for a good 30 seconds while I pondered this, and my players stared at me with trepidation. Finally I said “Here’s the deal, guys. There is a needle trap on this lock. You rolled too low to find it. The poison on it would almost certainly kill you. But you guys did everything you could to be careful, so I’m not going to do that to you. Instead, for the rest of this session, if the rogue checks for traps, I’ll just tell you if there are traps or not. By next session I’ll figure out a more permanent trap-checking mechanic for us to use.”

And that’s where I’m at right now. I’ve decided I don’t like rolling for trap checks, but can’t figure out how better to approach the task. Any thoughts?

Also, this is relevant.

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66 thoughts on “Checking for Traps is Bullshit”

  1. IIRC the needle trap isn’t an auto hit. You could have always given the player a +2 circumstance bonus vs the needle itself(I forget if it’s vs AC or a reflex save). Players need to be afraid of traps in a way so they don’t feel like they’re invincible.

    1. This isn’t Pathfinder. The rules I’m using are based on OD&D. And while I’m not as familiar with those rules, I’m pretty sure a needle trap is auto hit. (Correct me if I’m wrong).

      Ultimately, does it matter? If the attack roll is high, then the players are still facing death without doing anything wrong.

      1. I believe even with odd based rules, traps still only trigger on 2 in 6. If that isn’t explicit in the rule books, I’m confident it’s a fairly common statement in the modules, and also that it was later codified in the 1e dmg

        1. I’d have to look into it, but even if you add all of the rolls in the world between the players and danger, their survival is still a matter of random chance.

          1. agreeing with the post further down, the choice was made by the players to take that random chance. If they make that choice, they should accept the consequences, it’s not like they are entitled to the treasure. Consistent enforcement of that will stop poor decision making like stopping to open and loot a chest.

            That said, I am in favor of a bonus to the save due to the glove.

  2. One unique way of handling traps which I did for a game about 12 years ago was to treat the devices much like a new action that had just been performed against the player. If the player is not familiar with the trap, then the trap is sprung. If the player is familiar with the trap then the trap is nullified. I rarely have a trap that is so deadly, to prevent instances like the one you describe. The trap should make things more difficult, not a death sentence. Usually the settings are so hostile that making a trap have a burden can have much more impact on the entire party then simply resolving it then and there.

    I also have the traps be conditional: A rune covered chest may dissolve if sprung, transport the contents inside to some other chest deeper in some maw, or a conventional trap may open an optional door, the only barrier between the party and a particularly nasty foe. Some chests in my game will have no trap, but will also have no apparent way to open it, allowing the brutes in the party to have a go at it, or simply carry it with them to deal with at a later time. This option is particularly interesting when trying to fight an enemy with a chest tucked under your arm, restricting mobility and finesse.

    In games designed to tell a story, chest traps should be about choices and small sacrifices, not absolute results. Imagine carrying a set of chests out of a fort only to find out later that the items inside are little more than someone’s leftovers.

    I also had the chests opened at the start of a new place, opened by other adventurers, some with traps and the remains of previous victims. A corpse beside a chest should be a good indication to the party’s roguish players that traps are used ‘here’. Having them inspect the already sprung traps gives these players a bit of the familiarity required to open other chests further in.

    1. I like traps which are deadly. After years of playing with ‘soft’ traps, I’ve come to view them as pointless. Players don’t fear traps like those. These days, all of my traps are a serious threat to player’s life, and I’ve seen it have a dramatic affect on how my players play. Up to now I’ve liked it, but this specific incident has illuminated a problem I want to fix.

      I think part of our disagreement here springs from the fact that we view the game fundamentally differently. You call it a “game designed to tell a story.” That’s a description I would vehemently object having applied to the game I run. The story of my games is a byproduct, not a design goal.

      Rather, I would say that the game is designed to challenge the player’s cleverness. And the problem I’ve encountered here is that I think the players were amply clever, and not properly rewarded.

      I do like all of the ideas that you mentioned, and they all would work in my game, and I’d be happy to have them there. (Dead bodies nearby is a really good one which I always forget to use myself. It wouldn’t have worked here, though.) but they’re all situational. There needs to be a situation where a chest can exist, have a deadly poison needle trap on the locking mechanism, and the players can either discover it or not, based on how intelligently they play.

      1. Good point. It should be noted that if the player has assessed the risk, properly reduced the risk as best she can, then all that is left is the roll of the die. If it was a natural failure, there’d be no question. The result is catastrophic.

        If she was internally aware that her roll to detect traps was a failure, and she put gloves on, would that mitigate the requirements of the trap to be sprung? No. But it might mitigate the chance that the trap would hit her, but only by a little. Ever stepped on a nail wearing a boot? I have. Wearing ‘protective’ clothing like that is to reduce the catastrophe of an impact, not to avoid one.

        However, when you are talking deadly toxins, poisons, spore clouds and the like, any puncture, no matter how small, is catastrophic. If the deadly trap is sprung, the result is death. Based on how your game is setup, she should have died with leather gloves on. The player that approaches a chest, should approach it like a mob, if the point of the game is based primarily on combat.

        You could treat it like countless other Japanese console RPG’s do and have the trap reduce player HP’s to 1 but go no lower. That would introduce the severity of the ‘deadly trap’, force the players to heal themselves or party members, before the next round of combat, or adjust their strategy as though she were removed from play for the purposes of combat.

  3. One of the things I love about being a DM is the resourcefulness that the players demonstrate when doing a trap search (When I was a PC, I have always played an “overly-cautious” halfling thief and I was a genius at checking for traps to the point of driving the DM insane). That being said, the fact that the player used common sense and put on the gloves shows she is intelligent and she should be rewarded for such action. Because she rolled very low for the detection of the trap, I would have allowed the trap to be sprung and the poison needle fired.

    HOWEVER, since the pair of gloves would have added some degree of protection, I would bring a sense of dramatic story-telling to the scene unfolding: “… as you carefully insert your lock-picking tools into the lock and begin to manipulate the mechanism, a whispered “click” is heard and your feel an impact. Looking at your hands you discover a small needle, discolored with a sticky liquid, has struck the back of one of the gloves, vibrating against the unyielding leather.”

    This way the player would know that her roll was too low for a success, she made an intelligent choice donning the gloves, and pumps the adrenaline through the party that one of their own nearly died. And you dont look like a bad guy in the process.
    Just my thoughts…

    1. I had similar thoughts at the time. But my dilemma is thus:

      1. Gloves thick enough to protect a player from a spring-powered needle trap are going to rob the player of the fine dexterity needed to pick a lock.
      2. Gloves thin enough to allow the character their full range of digital motion, would be too thin to protect them from poison needle traps.
      3. If there were some kind of gloves which gave sufficient dexterity to the player, AND protected them (such gloves I personally can’t imagine. I find it difficult to do anything with gloves unless they’re fingerless) then why shouldn’t the player merely tell me they’re never taking those gloves off again, and thus they will be forever protected from needle traps.

      (I could still get them with flame or gas traps, I suppose.)

      I do like your idea of a difficult to handle partial effect. Maybe have her take half of the Int damage for wearing gloves. I could see that being a legitimate defense. Perhaps with a small penalty on her disable check as well if she was wearing gloves.

      I also like the idea of players testing locks with something like a wire coat hanger.

      1. Sorry for the delay in responding….. Christmas visits and such.

        1. Understanding the glove thickness vs. dexterity for lockpicking: perhaps the simple act of a Dexterity check to see if her manipulation of the tumbler would be affected. If her roll is higher than yours, allow the character their full range of digital motion. If yours is higher, add the penalty (as you stated) to her pick lock target number, thus making it more of a challenge. DO NOT let her know what the roll is for… adds to the drama that way.

        2. She could always sequester a magic user to make the gloves magically imbued ala Gloves of the Master Burgurlar (my creation). Allows full dexterity and digital motion as well as 1/2 damage to physical damage from booby trapped locks (not including spring blades or crushing damage). Needles are blocked!

        3. Another thought is to have an extra save for the needle attack due to the wearing of the gloves: first to see if needle had passed all the way through, the second for save vs. poison IF the needle bypassed the leather’s protection.

        4. As for the coat hanger idea.. have the character submit plans for a telescoping “pick” tool and have a gnome build it. Should incur a penalty to the pick lock check, but at least safe from 1 to 3 feet away from the BOOM!

        Above all things…. DON’T second guess your actions/reactions to your decisions. You are the DM first and foremost. Its good to re-hash the scenes, but don’t ove do it. What is done is done. Every situation is different: there are always room for improvement in each and every game. If your group are solid players and respect your gaming style…. just have FUN!

        Hope this helps. Any help in the future or questions, you can priv email me at

  4. if the needle hit her in the hands somewhere, couldn’t you reasonable gave her a bonus on making the save where she had gloves on ? i know that’s not what you want but that what i would of done. i personally love checking for traps and my players know to do it and what could happen. they look at it as just part of the game.

    1. A bonus to making the save for the gloves would be good, but it’s still a situation where the players made all the right decisions, and none the less ended up with random chance between them and death.

      I have no problem running a deadly game. My players die all the time. But it’s always because they’ve made a mistake.

      I suppose the unspoken question here is: do I want to run a game where opening a chest can be counted as a mistake?

      1. I’m not going to make this comment other places where it’s appropriate, but wouldn’t really skilled players have avoided the risk of opening the chest? I mean, I think they made a poor decision here. The decision to open the chest.

        So the players have a goal. Is the goal seeking treasure? I mean, opening a chest (like busting down a door, or exploring a room) is a calculated risk. One of the ancient stipulations is that good players stay focused on the goal of the adventure and don’t get distracted. This wasn’t a treasure hunting expedition, was it?

        1. I can’t really disagree with that assessment.

          But assuming it was a treasure hunting expedition (and the lower floors of the tower were reasonably cleared, with a path of escape blocked only by wandering monster rolls) what would a party need to do in one of your games to safely open a chest?

          I’m curious to know how you would have run such a situation, and what your player’s optimal actions would be.

            1. You’ve convinced me. Players have plenty of options for how they open chests. Unless I can find some entirely new way to handle trapped chests, I’ll continue using the trap check roll.

  5. Well, going to throw in my two cents. Yes, they did everything right, yes they did something to to be smart. The rouge didn’t find the trap and triggered it. Therefore, the rouge would get poisoned. I might lessen the poison damage since some of it could have smeared on the gloves, but they know that there are in an unsafe place, there is danger everywhere and that this might not be the best recourse. You eve stated…”Eager to be on their way, but unable to pass up this tantalizing prize, they decided to loot the chests.” They could have avoided it and continued to get out of said tower, but stayed and wanted loot. They got a little greedy and there are consequences to their actions, even if they took every precaution.

    1. That’s a fair analysis.

      But imagine I did hit her with the poison, and she died. Imagine then that the player rolled a new character, and the party continued adventuring as normal, but much more cautiously.

      The players now feel that the only way to survive a dungeon is to carry every single chest to town. This would slow dungeon crawling to…well…a crawl. And I think everyone would find the experience boring.

      I’m just speculating, mind you. I think you’ve made a solid argument against my position, but I want to explore this problem thoroughly.

      1. And you make a very good point as well…what is to stop them from turning a crawl into a literal crawl?

        I think the one thing that might help is to not trap EVERY chest. Maybe even hand wave it when there is not trap and it seems like they are going to ponder for twenty minutes on what to do. All you have to say is, “Guys, this one isn’t trapped. Either pick it or continue.”

        And hey, the one great thing about this game is that you don’t have to be a slave to the rules. Throw out what you don’t like and replace it with something else.

      2. Say they did turn the dungeon delving into a literal crawl? What happens when you move slower? More adversaries are able to meet with the group. Depending on your game, this may make things interesting or tedious. They could always just abandon the chest. The problem for me with placing chests in my games is whether or not it makes sense to the story, which is primarily what I aim for. If the object in the chest is integral (though never absolutely necessary) to the story, then if I trapped it, any loss would be considered a sacrifice that leaves the victim somewhat satisfied that they played a part in the success of the party. But then again, I tend to limit rolls for these types of stories and combat is fairly rare. If they abandon the chest, all is well. They don’t know what’s inside it, so you could introduce it at another point during gameplay, in some other scenario.

  6. I’m going to reply on my blog, but I think you did the wrong thing here.

    The choice presented to the players is, either cart the whole chest (and all the associated weight) back to town, or take a chance at opening it up here. Therein is the risk.

    That said, if the trap itself is a game (as in Numenhalla) then searching for a trap becomes redundant, then instead of ‘do I think I found the trap’, they play ‘do I think I can disarm the trap’.

    1. The trap being a game, or searching for the trap being a game, is precisely what I was thinking. Giving the players some further control over the situation, rather than relying on die rolls. I’ve got a handful of thoughts, but nothing solid.

      I look forward to your post, and to seeing how this is handled in Numenhalla.

  7. I hate the Search/Disable mechanic in 3.x for traps – it slows down gameplay and doesn’t really add anything positive to the game. It removes the element of player skill for a trapfinder, instead hinging everything on a random roll.

    If the player is reasonably thorough when searching for traps, I’m all for letting the player discover the trap without a roll. Disarming it, though, does require a Disable Device roll if the player decides to give it a shot. I think using the player’s ranks in Disable Device against the trap’s DC as a gauge to determine how difficult the trap would be to disarm is fine, if the player asks. All of this presumes that the trapfinder is actively looking for traps, of course.

    Having determined there to be a trap, you could tell her (based on the DC and her DisDev skill) roughly how difficult it’s going to be to attempt to disarm the trap, and she could then decide to run the risk of disarming the trap or not, depending on the players’ situation.

    1. This is based off of OD&D rules actually, not Pathfinder/3.X.

      Searching for traps and disabling traps are both “thief Skills.” At first level, they have a low chance of success. I’ve actually increased that chance at level 1 significantly, to 35%.

  8. I can think of a couple ways to handle it. Either simply allow a thief character to spend the time and automatically find any traps present (removing them is another matter, of course) or allow multiple rolls, each taking the requisite amount of time. The character can check as many times as desired until he or she feels confident enough of the result to proceed. The latter method works best if there’s a strong time management element to the game, e.g. light sources and wandering monster checks and the like, so that checking again and again has an actual in-game cost.

    1. Time and noise management are both important for avoiding random encounters in my games.

      What you’re essentially talking about here is a ‘take 20’ mechanic. I might be convinced that was the best choice, but it’s not one I’m fond of.

      1. I don’t think this is quite the same thing as take 20, because take 20 allows an added dose of certainty. You know that’s the best that you could ever do and there is no randomness involved.

        Allowing characters to keep trying (barring critical failure) is how I handle this in Pahvelorn.

  9. I think this is good. There should never be unavoidable death. Of course it is ultimately the Dm’s preference, but as a player I would never want to do everything right and still loose a character I have spent hours with. If I make obvious mistakes, sure I deserve to loose. But don’t penalize me for a bad dice roll.

    1. A good point has been made, though, that the players could have chosen to return to the chest later when they were better prepared, rather than opening it at the time.

      It’s a tricky situation. One I will definitely need to study and come up with a definitive position on.

  10. I agree with both Nexusphere and Lon V. While yes, they did not do anything wrong, they are fully aware that they are in a dungeon and that it is an inherently dangerous enviroment. Given the fact that they did test the chest with a sword, they were aware of the possibility of it being trapped. Yes, they played smart and didn’t do anything outright wrong, but even the best laid plan are subject to luck sometimes. You can do everything right and still fail, or get hurt. It is a dungeon after all.

    Now, seeing as they did take extra precautions, but still decided to go ahead and risk it (again, they suspected the chest to be trapped), I would not rob them of the consequences of their actions. But I would give them (or rather the rogue) a leg-up in the form of a bonus to the save versus poison. You can explain this by the leather gloves slowing the needle down just enough to pull your hand away, or simply expecting a trap and being at the ready. They get rewarded for their good play by having a better chance of surviving the consequences of their action.

    1. In order for me to enjoy a tabletop RPG, I must believe that my actions determine my success or failure within that game. The minimum amount of correct action for success can be raised as high as you want, and I can still have fun. But if I’ve reached that bar, and still fail, not because of incorrect action, but because of random chance, I would feel angry. I would feel cheated, and I would feel as though my time had been wasted by a game which ultimately could not be won.

      Perhaps other people enjoy that style of play. I do not. Nor will I run a game which I couldn’t enjoy myself.

      The question, in my mind, is whether the players could have done more to ensure their own success (in which case, they failed because they didn’t do enough to protect themselves), or whether the game can be improved to make the game more challenging in an interesting way.

      1. What about a month ago when I knocked the gem eye from the statue, made my save, and lived, but then another player was more cautious, but still made the same stupid decision I did, failed the save, and died horribly? Was that wrong? Or just hilarious?

        1. That was a significantly different situation.

          First, you guys were removing head-sized diamonds from the eye sockets of a titanic statue of a goddess. Right there are several clues to danger. Even if there are no traps, the goddess could still see your blasphemous deeds, and curse you. THESE players were just opening a chest.

          Big difference there in the perceived danger.

          Furthermore, you guys were fully aware that the gems were trapped. The rogue told you that he detected a magical trap beyond his ability to disable. You two chose to grab for the gems anyway. You made your save, and I told you (and thus the entire group) that it felt as though your entire body was trying to fly apart, but managed to hold together.

          She failed her save, and the disintegration effect succeeded.

          You guys made mistakes. A few of them. These players didn’t make any.

          To clarify my philosophy on saving throws: while some may be reflex saves, fortitude saves, saves against breath or saves against spells, they are all, ultimately, the same thing:

          A save against a mistake.

          If you do everything right, you don’t need to roll saves. If you make a mistake, the saving throw is your chance to survive, and learn to play better.

          1. I always thought that player skill was in large part the ability to avoid placing yourself in situations where you are at the mercy of the dice, like you say in your last sentence.

            ipso facto, if you’re rolling dice to see if you survive. . .

            1. But if a chest is trapped, to my knowledge, there *is* no way to open it without placing yourself at the mercy of the dice.

              If the players had a clear path to opening the chest without placing themselves at the dice’s mercy, then that would be a different matter.

      2. Do you still feel cheated when you come up with a great plan to defeat say a troll, but you still get unlucky with rolls of the dice and one or two PC bite the dust before you can flee? You still played well, but you are always at the mercy of the dice. Good playing reduces the impact of the dice, or mitigate the amount of dice roll, but at the end, you are still using the dice to determine what happen. The players, through intelligent play, may give themselves a leg up, and mostly, they can CHOOSE which risk they are willing to take.

        The rogue knew it could be trap. They could have marked the place on their map and come back later, they could have dragged away the chest. They decided to open it. After being told that they could not check inside the lock with the sword. The rogue willfully placed his life in the roll of a die, a roll he even knew of his odds of success. I’d give him a small bonus to be sure, to reinforce the idea of smart play (wearing gloves), but I would not have saved from possible death. He made his choice to trust in a die roll.

        1. Combat is, again, a very different thing.

          Players can intelligently win combat without needing die rolls. They could push over a pillar to land atop their foes. They could try to run their foe off a cliff or into a pit, or shoot arrows at their foes from hiding. If the characters dare to enter a fair combat with an enemy, then they’re accepting with foreknowledge that they’re placing their fate in the hands of the dice.

          1. I disagree. combat is very much like any other possibly dangerous part of the game, and in all your examples, all of then require a die roll of some sort. Push a pillar? Strength check. Run their foe into a pit or off a cliff? Requires a failed morale roll or intimidation check. Shoot arrow at their foe from hiding? Attack roll, and you better hope you take down enough of them before they find where you are and charge. There is pretty much always a risk. Playing intelligently only mitigates that risk, and let the player choose which risk they believe to be acceptable.

            The trap as a game (à la Numenhalla) is always the best, but the players always have the option of simply trusting the die. If they choose to forgo GM interaction in order to find traps, well, they get their find trap roll. I agree that it’s not fun, and it should be discouraged in favor of GM interaction at every turn. But in the end, they chose not to stick something thin in the keyhole and wiggle it around to check for traps. So they get their find trap roll. True, your players took precaution, just not enough.

  11. The PCs didn’t have to loot the chest. They knew the dangers involved. Granted, they did take reasonable precautions, but given the environment they should have left it alone and focused on escaping.

    It’s important for the DM to be aware of the dangers too. When such a deadly trap is set on a chest, there is a danger that it will go off. If you don’t want to put the PCs at risk, maybe you should use less deadly traps.

    In a case where the players did everything right but the dice did them in, I have no problem with a little ‘Divine Intervention’. But I think the worst possible thing you could do is tell the players that they have been spared. From now on they will be much more likely to throw caution to the wind since you’ve shown them that there are no longer consequences for failure.

    1. I think it’s a little presumptuous of you to say that I’ve shown my players that “there are no longer consequences for failure.” In the 6 game sessions we’ve had in this campaign, numerous characters have died. In fact, only a few sessions prior to this one, the players lost their entire treasure haul for the evening because one of them needed to be healed after encountering a poison needle trap exactly like this one. The difference in that situation is that the players had failed. They didn’t check for traps at all. In this session, I don’t think they did fail, and thus decided to reevaluate the mechanics I was using in the game.

      I do have a problem with ‘Divine Intervention.’ If my players take risks, then I don’t protect them from the consequences of those risks. I don’t fudge rolls, and I don’t make dangers disappear just to protect my player’s lives. And if I fuck up by placing the players in a situation they shouldn’t be in, then I fess up to it. If they take that as an indication that I’ll no longer let danger befall them, let them. They’ll learn the error of their ways soon enough.

      1. What about having everyone check to detect traps all at once? Sometimes the unassuming one gets a lucky success. Besides, who wants to put all trust on a rogue on whether the chest is clean… The rogue could be exactly that… a rogue.

  12. Well, they unnecessarily stopped to be greedy so I would have the rogue be poisoned. However, I wouldn’t have that high a damage. Maybe make it a loss of 2d6 INT, or have it do just enough to lower the rogue’s INT to 5 or so. That would be a tough penalty, but not take the character totally out.

    1. You may be right that they were deservedly endangered for stopping unnecessarily. But I don’t remove or lessen dangers to protect PCs from the consequences of their actions. If they fail, then they get hit with the full force of the danger they faced.

  13. I don’t think they took /every/ precaution, as the most obvious thing to do when searching fro traps I would think is to take a 20. yeah that takes a while but that would be the risk wouldn’t it? there were three options: 1; forget the chests, 2;rush a simple check and pray for the best, and 3; take a 20 and hope nothing wanders into the room during that time. in less i’m not geting something it seems like the players mistake was rushing through a dire situation

  14. after reading all these comments and reading your replies i am a little confused. you didn’t think the rogue should take the intelligence damage from the poison needle trap because she played the situation smartly. you also think players should be able to avoid death through intelligent play. what was the rogue’s intelligent playing ? putting the gloves on wasn’t because you stated as such in your response to charles. all she did was say she was checking for traps. she failed that check, she tried to pick the lock and sprung the trap.

    she did nothing overtly smart in playing really, she did what she was supposed to do, she checked for traps. she failed that check. why did she fail ? because her character wasn’t high enough level to find it, or skillful enough to find it. would she of been able to make a saving throw vs poison ? if so did you give her a chance to ?

    to me it seems like you saw her character fail and it would of cost her her life. you didn’t like that. maybe you was feeling in the holiday spirit and didn’t want to see anyone die that night who knows. but you took it upon your self not to kill the player. i don’t think anyone is gonna be able to give you any advice to fix the find traps roll because it isn’t broken. we wasn’t their at the table so we don’t really have a good view on it. reading about it isn’t the same as living the moment. to be honest and no disrespect to you at all, but i think you had a moment of weakness and just didn’t want to see a player die.

    now that it has been a day would you of done the same thing looking back at it. do you still feel like the find traps needs to be fixed ?

    1. I’d like to respond to this point-by-point.

      you didn’t think the rogue should take the intelligence damage from the poison needle trap because she played the situation smartly.

      That is correct. Although another way of phrasing that would be to say that she did everything she could do, thus making no mistakes which would justify death.

      you also think players should be able to avoid death through intelligent play.

      Again correct. Though again, in this context, “Intelligent Play” means “they don’t fail to do anything they should have done.”

      what was the rogue’s intelligent playing ? putting the gloves on wasn’t because you stated as such in your response to charles. all she did was say she was checking for traps. she failed that check, she tried to pick the lock and sprung the trap.

      They tested the lid of the chest with a sword, and checked the lock for traps prior to attempting to open it. And even though it was ultimately futile, she did take the precaution at least of putting on gloves. She did fail the search check, but did not know she had failed the search check.

      That is intelligent play. She did everything she could reasonably be expected to do. She made no mistakes.

      she did nothing overtly smart in playing really

      This assumes that I’m using a general definition of intelligence when I speak about intelligent play. I’m using a contextual definition. Perhaps that was not made sufficiently clear.

      she checked for traps. she failed that check. why did she fail ? because her character wasn’t high enough level to find it, or skillful enough to find it.

      Characters shouldn’t die because the character lacks skill. They should die because the player lacks the skill to make intelligent choices within the game.

      would she of been able to make a saving throw vs poison ? if so did you give her a chance to ?

      Saving throws ought only to be called for when the players deserve death, but are being given a chance to live. I already knew there was a problem with the trap checking mechanic. If I had then asked for a saving throw, the player would know she had been struck by a poison trap. She would also know that even though she’d done everything right, she had still failed and her life still hung on the edge of a die roll.

      to me it seems like you saw her character fail and it would of cost her her life. you didn’t like that. maybe you was feeling in the holiday spirit and didn’t want to see anyone die that night who knows. but you took it upon your self not to kill the player. […] we wasn’t their at the table so we don’t really have a good view on it. reading about it isn’t the same as living the moment. to be honest and no disrespect to you at all, but i think you had a moment of weakness and just didn’t want to see a player die.

      I do, in fact, find this assertion very offensive. But I understand you did not intend to be disrespectful, and so I will refrain from responding angrily.

      I will say that nobody has the right to presume upon my intentions. They ought to respond to the argument I make, or they ought not respond at all.

      i don’t think anyone is gonna be able to give you any advice to fix the find traps roll because it isn’t broken.

      That is your view, which draws on your expectations of how the game should be played. My view is a different one. Perhaps others share my views, perhaps not.

      now that it has been a day would you of done the same thing looking back at it. do you still feel like the find traps needs to be fixed ?

      A number of solid arguments have been made here. Namely that they could have left the chests until they were in less immediate danger. And while I don’t find this argument fully satisfying, it is a better response to my dilemma than any I’ve come up with.

      However, I would still like to find a better solution.

      1. a lot of good discussion here on this topic. if you ever get a better solution for the checking traps i hope you make a post out of it cause i would love to see what you come up with.

        i do have a question tho on something you said.

        Saving throws ought only to be called for when the players deserve death, but are being given a chance to live. I already knew there was a problem with the trap checking mechanic. If I had then asked for a saving throw, the player would know she had been struck by a poison trap. She would also know that even though she’d done everything right, she had still failed and her life still hung on the edge of a die roll.

        i don’t play OD&D i’m a 2nd edition DM / player and we use saving throws often. is that something that isn’t done a lot in OD&D ? i was just wondering that.

        hope you had a merry Christmas.

        1. @kenwolf

          Second edition saving throws are pretty much used the same way as in OD&D. What LS is writing about here, I think, is more about save or die philosophy. The idea being that a fair game requires that players have a way to avoid a direct “roll to survive” situation, even if that option is, for example, to run from the poisonous spiders. There can also be saving throws for less catastrophic events in OD&D, just as in 2E.

  15. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and while I don’t have any answers, I figured I’d give you some of my thoughts.

    First, your players may have done everything right, but that doesn’t mean they won’t die anyway. Aside from giving us random outcomes, the dice are supposed to also help us simulate risk. Running through dungeons is a dangerous activity, as is picking potentially trapped locks. Even if you do everything right, sometimes fate has it out for you. Look at it like the opening of “raiders of the lost ark”, to the viewer, Indiana Jones did everything right. Heck he even made his “check for traps” check at the idol and knew how to disarm it. Yet despite doing everything right, he’s moments later running for his life, having set off the trap anyway.

    Which segues nicely into my next thought, while C over at hack slash might be dead set against “quantum ogreing” your players, I believe that sometimes a little quantum GMing goes a long way. In this case, perhaps instead of a simple poison trap, since you believe your players did everything right, alter the trap to become something bigger, with more action. Your simple poison trap suddenly becomes the giant rolling boulder of doom, or perhaps even something as subtle as the rotating room trap, where the exit is no longer going the same way as it was when they came in. In other words, simple needle trap for simple mistakes, but reward the trap checking creativity with a chance to use more creativity to avoid or mitigate the sprung trap.

    Another option might be to roll both the find and the remove traps rolls at the same time. Since remove is dependent on find, allow the find traps roll to use either roll. To borrow a D&D Next term, give your thief advantage on trap finding.

    As a final thought, it’s worth remembering that while picking locks might be the most fun way, it isn’t the only way into a locked chest. Provided it’s your bog standard wooden chest, your players could break into the chest. Obviously the trade off there is that they could damage the contents (or even themselves, hello chest full of contact explosives), and they might attract attention with all the noise, but hey as I said, adventuring is risky business.

  16. The problem that I see with the original setup is that it puts a player out of the game until you can plausibly introduce a new character. Perhaps if you used a slow-acting, slowly debilitating poison and allowed for the possibility of an antidote the consequences of failure could be made more interesting.

    1. I don’t know about OD&D but most versions I have played that is how most poisons are. They act slower and allow for easy negating.

  17. Take a good look at the Take 10 and Take 20 rules.

    If your rogue says:

    “I check for Traps.”

    Ask her if she’s taking 10, or taking 20. If she’s taking 10 then tell her if there’s a trap or not based on her result. If she’s taking 20 then roll for a Random Encounter (taking 20 takes time, and time in D&D is an opportunity for another encounter).

    This does a number of things:

    First – It speeds up play, the rogue can check the doors, chests, suspicious book-cases and what have you and either find traps or not you can even include it in the room descriptions or make note cards with the traps and slide them to the rogue so she can proudly announce to the party where she thinks the traps are.

    Second – It creates a Choice – do a cursory check for traps and save time/avoid an encounter, or do a thorough check for traps not knowing if a monster is going to pop up from down the corridor. That there is good gameplay.

    That’s what you can do from the player’s side.

    From the GM’s side make your traps more complex, a triggered trap should be closer to an encounter than just a thing that hits once and is rapidly forgotten about.

    Take your box with a needle in it.

    When the trap activates have everyone in the room roll Perception (vs the same DC as the trap). Then describe the following:
    “You hear a distinct mechanical click from inside the lock, although very different from the sound of the tumblers.”

    Roll Initiative – the Trap has an initiative bonus of +0. Everyone who heard the trap can act in the surprise round.

    Someone might call out a warning, someone else might dive on the rogue and grab her away. When the needle goes it gets an attack roll against the rogue if she’s still at the lock, if not simply describe the needle pushing out from the lock dripping with a vile smelling poison. Then retracting back inside.

    Now the Rogue has a choice, attempt to disable the trap (take 10/take 20) or leave the box behind. Or maybe the Barbarian can smash the box (possibly ruining the contents, and definitely making enough noise for another Random Encounter).

    Traps have always been my favourite part of RPGs and my least favourite due to their execution. With a bit of work a trap can be the most memorable encounter in a session, rather than a speed bump/instant death device.

  18. Well, here’s what I’d have done: reduced the penalty for missing the save, maybe to a fixed INT of 5. If she did miss it, the rogue would have a childlike mentality until the poison ran its course ( also up to DM ). much hilarity would then ensue. The story would grow.
    But for now, you’ve removed all peril with checking traps. I say keep the mechanics as you’ve run them, but always be ready to change penalties (and rewards) to match the situation.
    You’re a good DM, though, your instinct to keep the challenge “balanced” is right on.

  19. Something like this happened in an awesome book I read awhile ago. Goblin Hero, I believe.

    Jig the Goblin was travelling with some people, one of whom was a woman who wasn’t particularly mean to him. She got nailed in the hand by a flesh withering poison needle trap! Without further ado, Jig saw her finger wither and the stuff begin to wither her hand at the knuckle, he had to act fast! Taking up a sword (much too large for him), he sawed off the woman’s finger, thus stopping the poison from killing her! :O

    I took away from that the idea that in the case of a deadly trap like that Intelligence poison, there was an option that was a punishment for failing but it wasn’t bad enough to cause death. Your players are creative, it sounds like. You could have had a similar thing happen where it was “Likely Death vs. Certain Inconvenience”, because really, you could always pay for a high level Cleric to Regenerate the finger. I’d rather lose a finger than have my brain melt and slide out my ears, truth be told.

    Don’t make the traps softer, just add alternative punishments for failure. That way the players know that they’ve failed, they could have died, and they feel good for outsmarting something that would have killed them! :D

  20. I’m all for killing in the name of stupidity, so since they had already stated an intent of caution I would have saved the trap resolution for her attempting to pick the lock. When checking for traps you’re looking for signs that something is going to happen. Perhaps the trap on this lock was well hidden and you didn’t notice the needle among the tumblers. To keep from having to kill off the character, I would have allowed her to notice the trap WHILE picking the lock.

    Give her the option to make a remove check (now at a penalty for missing the initial find check), but making it clear that failure would risk destroying the locking mechanism, and backing out now would spring the trap as intended (poisoning and killing her, not to her knowledge however). At this point, you still wouldn’t need to tell them it’s a poison needle trap. If she fails the remove check, that knowledge goes unknown and the lock is ruined, leaving them with a trapped, but otherwise intact container.

    The resulting risk is an bashing open the chest and releasing whatever trap was partially sprung. Granted, a needle trap isn’t going to be an issue when sprung by a large hammer, or forcefully removing hinges, but they don’t need to know that it wasn’t a 6d6 fireball or something of the sort. That leaves a nice bit of challenge, risk, and reward, all her her delicate and vulnerable fingertips.

  21. I know I’m late to the party, but here goes anyway. My solution involves a bit more upfront work, but also some more work on the part of the players, so it evens out!

    When placing the trap, decide how it is sprung, and at least one way a PC could plausibly detect this (e.g. poison needle sprung by poking at the tumblers incorrectly, detectable by jamming a wire coat-hanger inside at arm’s length, or possibly by illuminating the keyhole and peering inside carefully?). When a player checks for traps, have them explain *how* they’re checking. They also get to roll their skill as usual.

    If they describe an action that finds the trap, all is well and they find it. The roll is superfluous. If their actions wouldn’t sensibly find the trap, then — this is the clever bit — the skill roll basically becomes a *save* against the mistake of not specifically testing for needle traps! Perhaps they accidentally sprung the needle while knocking for hollow compartments or whatever they were actually trying. If they didn’t bother describing their checking process, they are wholly reliant on this save: that’s their mistake, of course.

    From the player’s perspective, they are always rolling the dice either way, so they don’t know if a bad roll means anything or not. We rolled pitifully, and the GM says we found nothing, but we tried every combination of tests we could think of, right? It should be safe….

    Of course trying every last test takes time, so get that wandering monster d6 ready!

  22. As for general non-dice trap mechanics

    As for your situation itself, I can’t see why are you in doubt at all. If you don’t like the idea to punish that player, just don’t punish her. Look, she take on the gloves which means
    (1) she EXPECTS something to hit her hand, you could give her any bonus you need for that matter
    (2) the glove could appear to be enough protection as GM you are the only person to know will they do or not – say as you please
    (3) the glove could wipe the most of the poison from a needle when penetrated, so you can either pull down poison effect or cancel it but have the rogue warned, or state that poisoned rogued is having seizures in the most dramatic moments of YOUR choice during that session (brief ones, say until she manage Constitution check)
    (4) Again if you DO want to punish the player, but not to kill her, you could say that the trap springed, gloves protected her BUT prevented to open the lock it seems to be too subtle for lockpicking in gloves, then she gets an intersting choice instead of uninteresting saving throw
    On the other hand if you do kill her, it will show your players how high are your stakes.

    PS I don’t GM dungeon crawls, we play FATE and PDQ, so that was an advice from another world ;-)

  23. I’ve been googling for a while. Who came up with this booby trap? You’d think there would be an example of an actual lock like this and how it works somewhere. I found one example an antique lock on Etsy with a needle that shoots out of the bottom. Where there is a quite obvious pin hole. If the needle was inside the keyhole, In my own lockpicking experience that needle would have to be more than an inch long. And at that length you would have structural problems with the needle. I call BS that these locks exist or at least that they are anything but rare and expensive.

    With that in mind remember that as a person hiding treasure in a box you don’t want to pay more for the box than the treasure is worth. That box better be full of diamonds. But it’s not! This is a low level trap. You can’t give first level characters that much treasure for such an easy challege. Might as well give out a dragon horde for killing one Orc. And then the other problem is the structural integrity of the box. Why spend so much on such a fancy lock if any barbarian with a battke axe can get the diamonds out? Why is the thief picking the lock anyway? Does the party mean to cover their tracks, because if not picking the lock is a pain is the butt. A little drill and a little saw would be better thieves tools.

    I would love it if the community could help me find an actual lock like this. As a player the next time I find one of these boxes I’m looting the whole box. Not opening it. I mean I’m going to take the whole thing with me. This is an esoteric and novel and completely useless contraption that is of more value as a rare piece of art and craftsmanship than a locked treasure chest. Take it to a merchant in town. “Look at this way out there gizmo I found! Must be full of diamonds because it’s booby trapped!” More likely to profit from my skill at lying to gullible NPCs about my pig in a poke than risking my life to open the ridiculous thing.

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