Thursday, October 29, 2015

Trap, trap, who's that tripping across my trap?

Over on the Supers RPG Facebook page, Christopher Hatty asks whether there are any supers RPGs with good advice about traps.

Alas, I don't know. From what I've read, there was some advice in the old Champions books or in Adventurer's Club, and I remember that the Mutants & Masterminds books had some as well. Mostly, I remember Aaron Allston pointing out in an article that players hate being caught in deathtraps...and yet, they're such a part of the genre that you don't want to skip them.

So thinking very briefly and superficially (that's how I do everything) about traps, it seems to me that there are really three kinds of traps in fiction:

  • Traps that can be avoided
  • Traps that must be endured
  • Traps that must be escaped
This is a general thing; it's most common in superhero stories, but it shows up in all kinds of pulp and adventure fiction. And depending on your goals in the story/roleplaying session, traps can move from one to the other, and frankly, if a player has a brilliant idea, a trap that was supposed to be endured may well be avoided..

A trap that can be avoided

Really, this is a chance for your heroes to show off. They know which button to depress, which wire to cut, where to stand so the needle doesn't fly out, are wearing the lead suit so the argonite doesn't affect them, whatever. The trap might be subtle or it might be obvious or it might be totally inappropriate for their powers. ("I can fly...what is a pit trap supposed to do?") but it's a chance for the heroes to show off (if they get it) or an opportunity for the villain to wear down their resources before the confontation.

To this way of thinking, a puzzle is a trap that can be avoided: if they figure out the puzzle, they avoid the damage that happens if they didn't figure it out.

A trap that must be endured

This is the untraceable poison that is working through the hero's system.This is the mind gas that Mysteriman dosed them with.  This is the trap that they didn't avoid.

These traps are rarely lethal by themselves (though they may look lethal, with the time limits frequently imposed), but they are devices that even the playing field or tilt it in the villain's favour.

To some extent, this is the Iron Maiden slowly closing on Lana Lewis, girlfriend reporter, or the hit men crossing town to kill Aunt June, but those are more like traps that must be escaped: you want the hero to come up with a clever way to avoid it.

A trap that must be escaped

This is another chance to show off. The classic is the deathtrap: a device or situation so fiendish that the hero has no obvious escape, and yet we want them to escape. ("Your utility belt is gone! The room is bathed in the rays of a red sun! In three seconds I will release a pack of wolves!") Sometimes the escape is by avoiding the doom ("By looping the wire around this lamppost, I create an electromagnet that will ionize the air and pull the laser beam to one side!") or managing to escape the hungry wolves for long enough to slip into their crate; a cage that holds a wolf might not hold a prehensile person.

But, as I said earlier, this is also the doom that will be visited on the loved ones. Yes, there's an argument to be made for "realism" but in a superhero story I hold my heroes to a higher standard: they don't fail to rescue Lana Lewis or Aunt June, just as they don't get offed by the deathtrap. The cost might be high (in a game resources sense) but it should be something they can pay.

Trapping the player characters

I find it odd that a player will not object to the threat to Aunt June but will object to being put in the room with the closing walls. Yet it's true, in my experience. Perhaps it's because the deathtrap is a result of the PC's failure, something in direct contrast to the usual assumption of character supremacy. Or maybe it's just as simple as players wanting to feel that they or their characters are smarter than the characters they read about, and most deathtraps are, well, dumb. (I love them, though?)

You can bribe them by giving them hero points or the equivalent. I find that they're better about it if you defeat them in battle fair and square first...but if the villain could defeat them in battle, why not just kill them? The only answer I have is, it's comics.

But it's worth noting that of these three types of traps, only one (the trap that can be avoided) involves actual dice rolls, to notice or disable the traps. The other two are much more about the situation: managing to persevere despite the Argonian Flu or managing to escape the deadfall while still saving Aunt June.