Is it a trap?


[note: the following was written on 2020-01-22]

To my surprise there has been plenty to do in the little ex-branch library. People coming by every day who need to be informed it is no longer a library and, in fact, the municipality currently has no functioning library. Twice daily trips to the collection and drop-off points to collect the boxfuls of returns people are leaving and to fail to deliver many holds to an increasingly malfunctioning system that is giving me serious worries about its long-term viability.

It's a shame as that had been a good idea for 24-hour service. I dislike that it's currently the only library service people can get, and forcing folk who aren't interested or prepared into often confusing and failure-prone tech 'solutions' is a rather dismal trend in our society. But it would have been great if it worked reliably and only people who wanted to use it had to.

Today I'm wondering about how to run traps in Fate. For D&D/Pathfinder games that's simple enough - there's a hazard in the environment and if it is obvious enough or someone is searching skilfully enough they get a perception check to detect it, and if they fail it goes off and possibly we switch into a conflict scene. I suppose I could demand of the players a Quick or Careful Overcome roll (we're specifically playing Fate: Accelerated Edition [FAE]) but that feels contrary to the spirit of the system.

Let's try thinking through what a trap or hazard is and how it works. In our traditional fantasy adventure scenario you are perhaps making your way through a creepy old corridor, an ancient temple perhaps. You fail to notice a pressure plate, and when stepping upon that plate, a blade scythes out of the wall and maybe it injures you or maybe you duck out of the way. Maybe you lose a few hit points, or make a reflex save in Pathfinder; in Fate perhaps you cross off one of your stress boxes, a consequence which only lasts until the end of the scene.

As I understand it, this scenario is regarded as dull and undesirable even in the traditional style as mere damage to hit points is typically shrugged off unless it is fatal and if it is fatal then it is usually not fun to suddenly lose your character. More-so, then, when all it costs you is nothing that won't regenerate by the very next scene. So we should certainly take the advice already often doled out and deploy hazards or traps only in circumstances where they would create or add to an interesting encounter. Maybe no pit trap in the middle of an empty corridor, but the battle with their kobold rivals takes place in a chamber Riddled with Pressure Plates and Pit Traps, or the narrow walk over a chasm to safety must be performed under a Hail of Darts.

Okay, so hazards are aspects which complicate situations to make them (more) exciting? Or perhaps we treat them in some cases as characters in their own right with skills and stress boxes and whatnot as described by The Bronze Rule, if I want those hazards to play a more active role in the scenario.

Then I think we get more to the root of what I'm trying to understand. How do I handle elements of the scene which may be hidden at its start, which may be more dangerous to the player characters if they do not discover it first? Or, do I? A lot of the assumptions of Fate seem keyed to playing at a table together where the GM has aspects for characters and situations written on cards and sheets of paper and typically everyone's sheets are visible to everyone else. For circumstances where you want to keep something hidden at first the text recommends assigning aspects which use indirection to make sense in retrospect, but it also states quite clearly that an aspect which is not known or used in play may as well not exist and that makes sense to me.

So maybe we want an aspect relating to the danger visible to players from the beginning of the scene, when we lay out what is there. Maybe they should know about the Dangerous Footing but is that something that should turn into Riddled with Pressure Plates and Pit Traps when the first pit opens, or is that something the players should know about before any pit actually opens? Even if there is no sign? IS there no sign?

Let's see:

  • Scenes should occur when they are necessary or improve the story
  • A trap or hazard should be present when it will enhance a scene or when it would be significant enough to justify a scene in its own right
  • There should be publicly visible aspects which refer directly or indirectly to the hazard (so that even if the players don't know about it in advance it should make sense in retrospect), or the hazard should arise as a consequence of play, or the scene should begin with the hazard manifesting
  • The line between hazard and creature might be blurred
  • The game rules are a tool for adjudicating the story and the game world, and should be used in ways that are fun and that reflect the stories we want to tell and their dramatic needs (this one is more general but I feel I will benefit from the reminder here)