The Alexandrian

As I’ve discussed in the Art of Rulings and Rules vs. Rulings?, among other places, I think it’s important that a DM not allow any interaction at the table to become purely mechanical. Partly this is just an aesthetic preference on my part (it keeps things interesting), partly it’s ideological (rules are associated for a reason), and partly it’s because specificity and detail usually leads to creative gameplay.

Traps are a key example of this. If all you can do with a trap is make a skill check to Search for it, make a skill check to Disable it, and/or take damage from it, then the trap will be fairly boring. You can try to spice that up mechanically or (and this is easier) you can spice it up by being relatively specific about how the trap works. (For example, you might end up with players scavenging the tension ropes that reset a spike trap in order to tie up their kobold prisoner. Or draining the alchemist’s fire through the nozzles of a flame trap. When they disable the pit trap do they wedge it open or use spikes to let it support their weight one at a time? The difference will matter if they end up getting chased back down that hall by ogres.)

In following this doctrine, I’ve found that it can occasionally be difficult to imagine what disarming a magical trap really looks like. I mean, if it’s just magical potential hanging in the air waiting for an alarm spell to go off, what is the rogue doing, exactly, when they make their Disable Device check? And what are they actually sensing with their Search checks?

To that end, here are a few techniques I use when thinking about magical traps.

Magical Potential: Permanent and semi-permanent magical effects will leave a very subtle “impression” on the physical world. Careful characters with great sensitivity can detect the presence of a magical field. In some cases this may be the first step in identifying how to bypass or disable the magical trap; in other cases, it may turn out that the trap can’t be disabled without something like dispel magic (but at least the rogue can figure out where it’s safe to walk and where it isn’t).

Ethereal Hooks: Ethereal hooks are attached to spell potential stored on the Ethereal Plane. When the ethereal hooks are “tugged”, they yank the spell potential back from the Ethereal Plane and the energy of the planar transition triggers the spell effect. Ethereal hooks are particularly useful for warding physical objects (i.e., traps which are triggered when you pick up an item). They can also be attached to physical tripwires. In either case, the ethereal hooks require some physical substance and can be safely dislodged if sufficient care is taken.

Spellsparks: Tiny spheres or cylinders made from small amounts of mithril and taurum (true gold). Spellsparks impact areas of spell potential and complete the casting. A typical application would be a spellspark attached to the bottom of a trigger plate: Step on the plate, the spellspark depresses and triggers a fireball. But if you can remove the spellspark, the spell potential is as harmless as a block of C4 without a detonator. (A divine variant of the spellspark is to douse a small prayer wheel in holy or unholy water.)

Smudging Sigils: This is almost always the case for things like a symbol of death, but quite a few other spell effects can also be “stored” as arcane or divine sigils using the proper techniques. You generally can’t just reach out and smear the thing (that’ll usually trigger the effect; spellcasters aren’t stupid). But if you’ve got the proper training, then you can usually identify exactly where you need to smudge the sigil to negate its effects.

Counterchanting: Spell effects with verbal components still resonate with those chants even after the casting is complete. By using proper counterchanting techniques, a character can weaken those resonances and eventually dissipate the spell effect. (This isn’t like counterspelling: The counterchanting is too slow a process to use on a spell as its being cast. It only works here because the spell is being held in a stored state.)

Concealed Material Components: In some cases, spell effects built into traps still require the material components of the spell to be present in order for the spell to be triggered. These are usually concealed in the trap somewhere. (For example, a fireball trap might have a bit of sulfur tucked away.) If you can remove the concealed material component without triggering the trap, then the trap is rendered impotent.

Arcane/Divine Focuses: Other spell-storing techniques require the presence of a physical talisman or focus. In some cases, removing the focus will cause the spell energies to dissipate harmlessly. In other cases, it will just defang the spell — which means that it could be triggered again if the focus were restored.

Bypass Passwords: Some spellcasters will intentionally build bypass passwords into their traps. If the builder was cautious, these can be quite difficult to determine. But many spellcasters will simply draw on a common lore of such phrases. In other cases, casters may not be aware of (or simply choose not to bother changing) standard bypasses built into the most common forms of certain rituals. Like Gandalf standing before the doors of Moria, characters with proper training can often run through their stock of common passwords and discover that they’ve managed to disable the trap without any real danger. (Some caution is required, however: Some trap-makers anticipate this sort of thing and will instead have the trap trigger if certain false passwords are given.)

Telepathic Completion: This is a subtle technique. The spell effect actually reaches out telepathically and sends a completion word; the power of the victim’s own thoughts will trigger the trap. (This means that characters immune to mind-affecting effects and/or telepathic communication can’t trigger the trap. This often means that undead can freely cross through the trap.) Rogues holding a proper counter-command in their thoughts while moving through the triggering zone of the trap can disrupt the delicate telepathic effect for a limited amount of time (say, 1d4 minutes), allowing others to pass through safely.

Clockwork Mechanisms: Spells can be stored inside clockwork mechanisms. Physically disabling the clockworks will disable the magical trap. Nice and simple.

Thoughts? What other techniques could we be using here?

As a final utilitarian note: I’ll only rarely include these specific details into my notes. Instead, this is just a conceptual toolkit that I can use to explain the working of any trap as it comes up during play. Similarly, I usually don’t spend time prepping the exact mechanics of how a particular pit trap works (one door or two? where are the hinges? are there hinges? what are the spikes at the bottom made out of? etc.).

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19 Responses to “Random GM Tip: Disarming Magical Traps”

  1. -C says:

    Excellent post!

    I will probably steal this and not feel guilty.

  2. Astronut says:

    I suspect magical potentials could also be “grounded” and shorted out with the correct materials?

  3. Örpherischt says:

    These are great! I was just rummaging through the PHB and DMG looking at the implications of the rogues “magical” abilities and wondering if I was comfortable with the rules as written. This list allows a DM to bypass the need for houserules!

    Thanks.

  4. Jason says:

    I really struggle with the core assumption here.

    I fully agree with the notion that I want the experience at the table to be most enjoyable and more flavorful than a simple die roll or two, but I have players with vastly different skill sets from one another – and an even vaster gap between them and their characters. By expecting players to come up with creative ways to manage the trap, I’ve run into a couple different problems a) they have an idea they think should work and I don’t, which creates a even greater negative effect, b) then, people tend to play the classes where they have expertise and not try something new. My one player likened it to playing D&D and stopping in the middle to play a game of soccer in order to determine the outcome of something in-game. Both requires the player to use a completely different skill set to what is happening in game that is unrelated to success in game for his character. Another player who is a trained martial artist started asking to choreograph fights so he can show off his knowledge to get an edge in fights like others get in problem solving … but maybe this is just my group.

    Sorry to pull attention away from the ideas in the post. I really do like your trap descriptions and hope to use them. They are quite inspiring.

  5. Stephen says:

    Yep, this was an excellent post.

  6. Örpherischt says:

    Jason above has valid points in terms of expecting players to presume these mechanisms as further “rulesets” for players to work within. The mini-game analogy is a good one. But…

    I personally view these ideas as DM-description material. They players simply make the rolls (unless a particular player wants to interact more deeply through role-play, of course) and then one of the flavourful descriptions above is then provided by the DM, filling in minor details of the player’s actions where the player could not be bothered (without going so far as to describe anything the player would not want themselves to do).

  7. Hautamaki says:

    It doesn’t bother me that D&D can be played as a game of skill and experienced players can pick these sorts of things up and do better next time. Most of the most enjoyable activities/hobbies are things where you would expect to not do well at first, and learn to do better over time.

  8. Sir Wulf says:

    >>>>
    By expecting players to come up with creative ways to manage the trap, I’ve run into a couple different problems a) they have an idea they think should work and I don’t, which creates a even greater negative effect, b) then, people tend to play the classes where they have expertise and not try something new. My one player likened it to playing D&D and stopping in the middle to play a game of soccer in order to determine the outcome of something in-game.
    >>>>

    In order to encourage player participation, I like to give them a bit more say in how a scene plays out. (I picked the approach up from Robin Laws’ excellent Feng Shui RPG.) If a player declares that his rogue will shim up a trap’s pressure plate by jamming an iron spike under it, I’ll go with the flow. I may have pictured a trip wire instead, but such details are seldom so important that I need to stifle my players’ creativity.

    By allowing the players’ input into details of the game world, I can also provide subtle hints that some details are more significant than they first seem. If I veto a player’s original description of how he disarmed a trapped lock so that I can add details about the lock plate’s dragon motif, my players will suspect something’s up when I mention a similar design in a different area.

    Of course, some players will manipulate such an approach for their own advantage. Such folk need to be redirected back toward the rules: An occasional minor advantage is reasonable, but they can’t be allowed to take over the table.

  9. Justin Alexander says:

    @-C: It’s here for the stealing. :)

    @Örpherischt: Yes, exactly. Most of the time this is just a way of describing what happens — just like describing what a hit looks like in combat (“your sword bites deep into his arm and blood pours down between the chain links”). What’s nice is that once you’ve established the actual details, they’ll often be leveraged into creative gameplay that a simple “I rolled a 23” / “you succeed” interaction can’t. (For example, taking the spellsparks you removed from the previous trap and tossing them down a hall to see if they fall through an illusionary section of floor. Or trying the same password that worked on the last trap. Or removing the focus and then replacing it to re-activate the trap.)

    @Sir Wulf: That’s probably why I don’t really bother locking down the exact mechanic of a trap during prep. Like a lot of details in the campaign world, it’s easier and more flexible to simply discover it with the players during the play.

    @Jason: This delves a bit closer to what I was talking about in The Art of Rulings. In general, more than 90% of the interactions at my table are of the “player expertise activates character skill”, with my providing a physical description of what happens. So, for example:

    Player: I search the hall for traps.
    GM: Search check, please.
    Player: (rolls) 23
    GM: Okay, about halfway down the hall you find a pressure plate. Underneath it you can see what look like spellsparks.

    At this point I’ll usually get “Can I get disable it?”, we’ll make a Disable Device check, and then I’ll say something like, “You get a tool around the nearest spellsparks and tug ’em out. You’re pretty sure that’ll do it.”

    Occasionally, I’ll get the player proposing a simple method: “Can I tug out the spellsparks?” or “Can I wedge up the pressure plate?” If this is clever or very appropriate, they’ll get a bonus to their Disable Device check (player expertise can trump character expertise). Frequently I’ll get complete bypasses: Jumping over the pressure plate, walking around the pressure plate, dispelling the trap, etc.

    Fortunately, I seem to rarely run into the “that won’t actually solve the problem” issues. Most of the time this is due to me and the player having a different understanding of the situation. This leads me to another piece of advice which I should probably to the Art of Rulings at some point:

    Always understand why the player wants to do something.

    This extends down to the micro-level, but more often manifests itself at the macro-level. This won’t always save you, but generally if I understand what the players are trying to accomplish with a particular action I will either be able (a) resolve it appropriately or (b) explain why that won’t work (and, in some circumstances, even suggest alternatives that will within the context of the game world).

    A simple, micro-level example of not following this practice:

    Player: I jump over the chasm.
    GM: You try to jump the 1500′ chasm and fall to your death!
    Player: 1500? I thought you said 15!

    But I digress.

    In the case of combat, I’ve rarely had it come up. (The rigid game structure of combat in most systems tends to lock people into a very linear thinking, IME.) But a similar philosophy applies: If the player wants to describe exactly how they’re trying to hit the bad guy, more power to them. If they have an idea which is particularly clever or appropriate to the situation, toss ’em a +2 bonus or inflict a -2 penalty (or larger if it’s very clever/appropriate).

    For example, 3E already gives out +2 bonuses for obtaining the high ground or flanking an opponent. (Confession: I usually forget to apply the former unless somebody specifically seeks it as an advantage, and then I slot it right in.) Even if they find an “exploit” that lets ’em gain that kind of +2 bonus “every time”, it’s generally all right as long as they have to expend some effort to get in the right position or to find the right terrain.

    And sometimes, of course, they’ll think of something that bypasses the combat mechanic entirely. Given how comprehensive combat systems usually are, that’s a rarer occurrence than it is with traps or social interactions, but it can happen.

  10. Jason says:

    Thank you, to everyone who reflected on my comments. I really appreciate the tone of the responses – helpful, thoughtful and civil.

    Justin, I remember reading the Art of the Ruling, which actually started my own questions brewing.

    I think that Justin’s descriptor is pretty consistent with what is happening at my table and that a successful roll creates options for players to make choices, ie.
    “You found a pit trap mechanism – you can disable it by spiking it open or spiking it closed. Which do you do?” And then being open to a player’s creative third or fourth or fifth approach when I understand what they are trying to accomplish.

    Again, thanks to all.

  11. Sir Wulf says:

    >>>>
    I think that Justin’s descriptor is pretty consistent with what is happening at my table and that a successful roll creates options for players to make choices, ie.
    “You found a pit trap mechanism – you can disable it by spiking it open or spiking it closed. Which do you do?” And then being open to a player’s creative third or fourth or fifth approach when I understand what they are trying to accomplish.
    >>>>

    One suggestion: Unless the PCs’ situation automatically constrains the players’ options, try to ask open-ended questions instead of presenting either/or situations. Instead of “…you can disable it by spiking it open or spiking it closed. Which do you do?”, you could announce that “You’ve spotted small holes in the walls at about waist height and a possible pressure plate on the corridor floor. What would you like to do?”

  12. Pseudoephedrine says:

    Yeah, this is a good post. The one omission I noticed was discharging or grounding the spell. PCs could use wires of magically potent material to dissipate the magical energy temporarily, then bypass the trap before it recharges.

  13. Jason says:

    >>>>>>
    Instead of “…you can disable it by spiking it open or spiking it closed. Which do you do?”, you could announce that “You’ve spotted small holes in the walls at about waist height and a possible pressure plate on the corridor floor. What would you like to do?”
    >>>>>>

    This is exactly where I’ve gotten into trouble in the past. If the player can’t imagine a specific course of action, or they try something reasonable that trigger the trap, the response I usually get is ‘but my character is very experienced with traps and he would know (or, can I roll to see if he would know)’ and we devolve into debate over player knowledge – character knowledge.

    Sir Wulf, would you roll or give additional information if a player were trying something who knew would set off the trap (assuming they were playing a character with strong skill base)? My guess from the description you have above is the stepping on the pressure plate would send something firing out of the holes. But not having said that to the player(s), it is possible that they imagine it working differently and makes choices that lead back to the above paragraph.

  14. Justin Alexander says:

    @Sir Wulf: That would be my approach, too. If a player specifically asks, “Can I see anyway to disable it?” I’ll treat that as “player expertise activating character expertise” and offer them a couple suggestions (assuming their character has any competency in that area).

    (As a tangent: I don’t actually think things like, “Oh! That’s player expertise activating character expertise, so that means…” at the table. That’s just a convenient way of summing up the way I generally handle things.)

    @Pseudoephedrine: Nice! I don’t think I’ve ever used that one outside of tripping a mechanical trigger from a distance and then rushing across before the trap has a chance to reset. Generalizing it to a forced magical discharge (or forcing a magical trap to over-discharge beyond the point where it can recharge?) is an excellent addition to the toolkit.

  15. Sir Wulf says:

    >>>>
    This is exactly where I’ve gotten into trouble in the past. If the player can’t imagine a specific course of action, or they try something reasonable that trigger the trap, the response I usually get is ‘but my character is very experienced with traps and he would know (or, can I roll to see if he would know)’ and we devolve into debate over player knowledge – character knowledge.
    >>>>

    A puzzling trap should ideally be like a mystery novel: All the clues needed to solve the mystery are there, but take a while to figure out. If the character’s “trap savvy” should be far beyond the player’s knowledge, use Perception and Disable Device checks to see how well his knowledge and instinct have served him. Successful rolls gain more details about the trap’s mechanism or function (“Before you touch the wire, you notice something else obscured by the dust. Several tiny magical sigils have been scratched into the floor beneath the wire.”)

    If the player suggests a course of action that would set off the trap, but his character has rolled well, you may want to break things down into smaller steps, giving him more details as he goes. A Disable Device (or comparable) check may guide your descriptions, but don’t use it as a simple binary yes/no. Did the character fail dramatically, almost succeed, barely succeed, or ace the check? Break the disarming process down into logical steps and describe the disarm like you would a scene in a movie, feeding the player enough information that he can make meaningful decisions as he goes. “As you start to pry up the contact plate, you feel a slight tingling in your fingertips, suggesting that instead of the more common mechanical triggers, a magical detonator lies beneath the stone.”

  16. Pseudoephedrine says:

    Justin>

    I used it recently when the PCs were having a devil of a time figuring out how to open two magically sealed doors, one charged with fire magic and the other with water magic. After touching each one in turn and getting nailed, one of the PCs came up with the idea of touching both at once. He completed the circuit and got zapped (though he survived), but it shorted out the doors long enough for everyone to slip through.

    And to develop your idea about over-discharge, perhaps PCs could transfer extra magical energy into a trap to cause it to overload?

  17. Hautamaki says:

    Perhaps one way to do trap disarming in general, mundane or magical, would be for the player to roll to disable device, and, if it’s obviously a very poor roll, the DM could allow the player to specifically describe how he attempts to disarm the trap; essentially forcing the player to guess what the specific trigger is. If the roll is high, the DM could rule that the character has previously encountered a trap just like this and/or has a specific and correct insight about how to disarm it correctly.

    For example, if it’s a magically trapped chest the PC wants to open, the DM could consult a list of ways to magically trap a chest and choose one. Now, the PC can guess in what way the chest is trapped and take a counter measure, but if he chose incorrectly, the trap still goes off. For example, the PC might say he’s being particularly careful to avoid being electrocuted by some sort of shocking grasp type effect by using thick leather gauntlets to open the chest; this might reasonably also protect his hands against being burned. However if the spell activates a cloud of acid, he’s s.o.l.

  18. News from Around the Net: 3-FEB-2012 | Gamerati says:

    […] you’ll find one that’s magical in nature. How exactly do you disarm a magical trap? Justin Alexander @ The Alexandrian has some cool ideas to ponder… From smudging sigils to counterchanting and everything in-between. What do your wizards do (or your […]

  19. Detect Magic | Fate of the Forgotten Realms says:

    […] For some inspired ideas describing magical wards and traps see this page over at the Alexandrian blog: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/12909/roleplaying-games/thought-of-the-day-disarming-magical-tra… […]

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