RPGaDay 2021 #17: Trap

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Trap”. Narrative games have markedly changed how I view the use of traps, and this seems like a good moment to write about that shift.

When I just started playing RPGs with D&D, I applied traps in games in a very D&D sense, being just yet another attack on the players. Much of D&D mechanics back then were purely combat focused. In fact, it was quite a paradigm shift when D&D rulebooks suggested equal rewards for avoiding a conflict as would have been for fighting it out. Whichever way, I viewed traps through that lens for a long time: it’s just a delayed, abstracted attack by some nemesis on the group of players.

Starting with Burning Wheel, though games like Dungeon World, Fiasco, and My Life With Master, I started learning how traps can be fun ways to advance stories and give meaning. In games like Burning Wheel and Torchbearer you are rewarded for getting yourself in trouble; Fiasco is built around the idea of people with poor impulse control getting into deeper trouble than they were; and My Life With Master is about the imminent and unavoidable demise of the Master and the question of what happens to the minions afterwards. Each of these games reminds the players that failure is okay, and should make things more interesting. For Burning Wheel and Torchbearer, traps aren’t there to kill the players, they’re to give them poignant choices: do you go on despite being injured? You should really turn back at this point—are you sure you want to push your luck just to not break your promise?

As a player as well I’ve learned to see traps as an invitation from the host of the game to some more interesting narrative. If there’s a big shiny red button on that control panel looks so alluring, surely there’s something interesting that will happen if I press it. Moreover, if terrible things happen to my character, wouldn’t that just be really cool? In Die Hard, what’s cool is that John McClane ends up shoeless, beaten up, and poorly bandaged for his final encounter. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, there’s an incredibly poignant moment where Luke has, for all practical purposes, defeated Darth Vader and cuts off his hand; this prompts him to realize that his father and him are similar in quite crucial ways. How would this moment have happened if Luke hadn’t willingly walked into the Cloud City trap at the end of The Empire Strikes Back?

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