by Mike Shea on 29 July 2013
A listener to the monthly podcast Behind the DM Screen asked about the best way to incorporate traps and puzzles into a Lazy DM sort of philosophy. Puzzles are a tough nut to crack when it comes to lazy D&D elements, but traps aren't nearly as hard so we'll cover that first. So, in this week's article, we'll specifically take a look at the best way to incorporate traps into our evolving, flexible game with hardly any preparation or time required.
Running a great lazy D&D game is all about having the right tools on hand to build out your game as it happens. Traps are no different. Unlike monster books or skill tables, there isn't always a great set of traps to choose from. Usually traps are buried in DM focused books like the Dungeon Master's Guide or included on a few brief pages of the Pathfinder Core book. The variety is usually lacking, however, and they aren't always easy to reference. Building your own set of easy-to-drop-in traps will be a great benefit to your lazy toolkit.
To build out a toolkit of traps, start with some simple mechanics. If your D&D system of choice includes a chart of attack and damage scores per level, as does 4e D&D, Dungeon World, 13th Age, and D&D Next, you can start with those charts. Write down some attack and damage scores appropriate to the general difficulty of the dungeon you plan to run. This is easy when you have something like the 4e DM Cheat Sheet. For other systems like Pathfinder you'll have to pick out some general mechanics from the traps section of the core book.
The mechanics you choose shouldn't be too complicated. Some single target and multiple target blasts, bursts, or ranged attacks should be fine. You mostly only need to have the math on hand so you don't have to look it up. A 3x5 card of appropriate attack and damage scores is usually enough. If it's really simple, you can keep it in your head.
It's these simple mechanics that let you custom build traps as you need them by wrapping the simple mechanics in some interesting flavor.
If you're looking for something a bit more mechanically crunchy or there isn't an easy cheat sheet for traps in your system, you can steal and reskin a typical monster or spell to act as a trap. You can throw out most of the statistics for a monster reskinned into a trap except for one or two attacks. Add a few difficulty check scores to detect and disarm it and you're all set.
Spell lists give you lots options for traps. You only need to decide the caster level to determine the spell's power. Write out a list of spells you might typically find as arcane traps and keep it handy for your game.
Flavor is what makes traps interesting. Instead of a simple crossbow trap, perhaps it is an ancient statue of a female warrior with a bow, an iron manticore with a spiked tail trap, or a pair of gargoyles that laugh and spit poison darts. You don't need to keep much of this flavor in your toolkit. Often you can just make this stuff up at the table. Something like the lazy DM Cheat Sheet can give you some ideas at the table if you're finding it hard to think on your feet.
It's important that the traps you put in your toolkit fit the environments your PCs will explore. If you're PCs are entering an ancient dungeon that hasn't been touched for ten thousand years, the traps should be big and mechanically simple. They shouldn't reset or if they do, the way they reset should make sense for a ten-thousand-year-old trapped dungeon. If the PCs are battling a bunch of goblins, they probably shouldn't find a lot of powerful arcane traps. Likewise, a powerful wizard isn't going to dig out pit traps full of sharpened sticks when he can just put arcane flame traps all along the walls. Each of the traps you put in tells part of the story so choose a list of traps that makes sense for the environment the PCs find themselves.
If you're running an ancient dungeon that doesn't really have people running around resetting things, you can always use heat or water as a source of energy to reset traps. Large heat ducts can build steam pressure in small chambers behind the wall that pushes traps back into position. A constantly flowing underground river or waterfall can push waterwheels that turn a complicated series of cranks until the trap is reset. Sometimes its enough just to describe the sound of gears twisting, the sound of rushing water, or a feeling of heat and the whistle of steam vents to get your players to understand how these traps have reset.
Like all of the elements of a good lazy D&D game, a nice set of re-usable traps and re-skinnable mechanics can give your players a feeling of depth and challenge while letting you focus your time and attention on the elements that bring the story to life at the table.