Traps. I like the idea behind traps: Hidden, deadly surprises for the unwary, and only detectable by a professional. But only a few times have I seen traps implemented interestingly in a game. Today I will give some definitions.
Traps should be frightening. In Dragon Age II, a typical trap is a bear trap which does neglible damage and immobilizes the character for a few moments. In combat, this is a small nuisance. Outside combat, it is a speed bump.
Dragon Age II had the perfect solution for traps, but it fumbled it. DA has an Injury system. Whenever a character falls in combat, he or she sustains an Injury, which lowers maximum HP until healed with an Injury kit. Make a trap knock a character out outright in combat, and sustain an injury outside combat. This way traps are elevated from speed bumps and nuisances to real threats, but not life-ruining ones. A party without a rogue can stumble through a trap-infested corridor, but it will possibly leave them vulnerable for the main course.
Traps should be hidden. Ironically, most of the times traps come as complete surprises for me. I’m just running around, minding my own business, clearing out a dungeon and suddenly I run into a trap (which slows me down for exactly 2 seconds). I realize ”Oh, this is a trapped zone” and switch to my rogue for until the end of the trapped area, clearing them out as I go. While I risk sounding like an over-privileged whiner, I don’t like being surprised like this.
I feel traps should be like horror movies. They start normal, with just some vague hints of something being amiss. The events build up and strange things crop up, shadows in the dark, the feeling that something is watching. And finally, the monster attacks. This is what traps should feel like by themselves. The presence of traps should be obvious, but the exact nature and location of one should be a mystery until it strikes… Or you detect it first.
Imagine a typical D&D-based computer roleplaying game. Your typical party is doing some typical Bioware side quest in a typical old ruin. Outside the ruin is a typical bunch of bandits, camping. After slaying them and collecting the typical loot, you enter the first level of the ruin. A corridor later you come across a larger chamber, with a couple of bandit corpses laying about, deliciously highlighted as containers. Suddenly the rogue states ”Everybody stop! I have a bad feeling about this room…” The party stops, and a new movement command makes the characters move a bit slower and carefully. Now every feature of the room becomes unclear. Are those floor tiles a bit darker than the rest? Is there something barely perceptible between the pillars? Are the doors safe? After sidling along the walls, the fighter detects something behind a tapestry. The rogue is taken to it, and he, after a moment’s work manages to defuse the device. ”This room’s clear, I think… Watch out for any traps on the other room, though.” The characters start moving at normal speed again, and won’t slow again in that specific ruin. In the next room, the fighter steps onto a pressure plate, and poisonous darts fill the room. Every character gets a Poisoned-condition, which can only be cured in the base camp and which lowers healing efficiency by 50% for 30 minutes. Only after the rogue has cleared out all the traps in the ruin, he says ”Okay, I’m pretty sure that’s the last of them. We’re safe.” That’s what a good trap should be like. Creating paranoia, and striking without mercy.
Traps should either be equivalent to combat, or something else entirely. This might sound odd at first, but let me illustrate with two examples: In Dragon Age II, disarming a trap (clicking on it with a rogue) nets you 100 experience. Fighting a standard fight nets you 200 experience. So clicking three times on glowy circle will net you more experience than a 5-minute tactical combat. In Knights of the Old Republic, you can take a feat that aids you in using and disarming mines, which happens about every thirty or so minutes (if memory serves), or you can take a feat that aids you in fights, which happen in about every five minutes (the easiest way to clear a minefield in Kotor is to walk over it).
These are examples of traps sharing some features (payoff in DAII, effort in KotoR) with combat and thus muddling the experience. A game that gives the same weight to both trap disarming and combat is in Puzzle Quest II, though it is probably a cheap example due to the nature of the game. Another would be Betrayal At Krondor, where traps are minor box-pushing puzzles, but they are set in the same game mode as combat. The traps in Krondor are deadly; A lightning trap can incapacitate a character instantly if you wander into it. An example of a trap that is something else entirely than combat would be a minigame for disarming one, or a quick time event, though I don’t remember any examples right now.
The point is, traps are most likely rarer than combat. Therefore, they shouldn’t take the same resources as combat. And unless you force the player to have a rogue in the party, traps shouldn’t be worth any experience, as it is the most valuable substance in roleplaying games (in those that don’t have a reachable level cap, anyway). If you do always have a rogue, then you can reward the player for finding and disarming traps, since keeping a scout is plain smart. And if you do have a same system for traps and combat and both appear equally often, then go nuts in offering people ways to make either easier.
So here are my long, winding thoughts on making better traditional traps in digital roleplaying games. Some of these points go well on the tabletop too. Next time the other useless rogue activity: Pickpocketing.