The latest UA was on traps. I’m broadly in favor — traps make the geography bite back, and so long as they’re signposted, they encourage interacting with the world. In particular, they punish you for not taking a place seriously and for being too optimistic. They can also eat up enormous time and quickly become capricious or subject to a standard procedure. That’s the worst: “As with every door, I check for traps [using the following well-understood protocol], then listen at it, then pick it”. Awful.
Thou Shalt Not Randomly Generate Traps
Traps are contextual. They should ALWAYS teach you something about the area: there’s a hunter nearby, this place was contested battleground, these people believed objects interred with corpses conferred power on those corpses or the wizard who constructed this place was insane or whatever.
Traps with a Riddle or Puzzle In Them Are Better
You know how you’re not supposed to block the party at a riddle — it’s supposed to be optional and off to the side, guarding a treasure or something. Well… if the downside for flubbing the riddle is a trap, and the trap is harmful but survivable, it seems totally okay to me to put that puzzle in the mainline of the adventure. The party can absolutely brute force it at that point, triggering the trap as the penalty they pay to continue. They won’t be happy about it, but when their stress levels get too high, they can just address it themselves and eat a few poisoned darts.
Nonlethal Trap Doesn’t Mean Grappling
There’s this puzzle/trap/thing in your dungeon. It has a trigger mechanism and everyone’s ready to engage with that. It has an effect when triggered, and you’re already cackling imagining the looks on the players’ faces. But it’s in the middle of a well-trafficked area; surely the setters of the trap would use a nonlethal one?
Surely. And so you are reduced to nets, cages, and alarms. Or are you? Dropping a portcullis (or rotating a wall) is a better move than a net, because players will cut through a net, but generally will not start prying apart the walls. In a dungeon of fish-men, flood a room. In the temple where everyone’s immune to fire, fill the room with molten brass. Teleporting someone elsewhere in the dungeon to sit a spell. Sending someone to sleep, or charming them, or even frightening them (and, by the way, combine “a frightening trap” with “this area is in disrepair and so running around frightened can land you in a pit that didn’t used to be there”). You got options, is my point.
And that’s just traps, which frankly are the least interesting dungeon dressing. Tricks and Treats are both woefully under-specced, and to my mind more interesting!
We have a very little detail on dungeon tricks in the DMG this time around. It’s enough to whet the appetite, at least. The problem with Tricks (and Treats — a trick is just a treat with a narrow applicability which you don’t quite understand yet) is that they don’t make mundane, logical sense in the way that a trap does. There’s a poisoned needle in the lock; clearly a trap, clearly something the rogue will work her way around. Easy. There’s a mirror which treats the color red as casting shadows. Very interesting, but also magical, and hard to interact with except in its own internal logic. Are you going to try to use thieves tools? I don’t see how. If you pry it free from its frame, what’s the DM supposed to do?
So for tricks (and therefore treats):
Embrace Noetic Tricks
Tricks and treats are boons beyond expectation. They’re an unlooked for piece of magic, a fragment of poetry in an area which is otherwise deadly and logical. Use them! Put one in every dungeon level, and as you get deeper in the dungeon, put more tricks and treats in the dungeon. As you delve into the earth, you’re leaving the sun (rigorous, logical) behind and entering a region where cthonic gods hold sway. Let that happen! There’s a machine which switches brains, and a tree which flowers underground, and a mechanical swallow that knows your name.
Unlike (logical, well-placed) traps, tricks don’t have to follow from what’s around them. They might; they might tie into a legend of a place (or have legends told about themselves), but they might also just be, without rhyme or reason. They’re a good thing to tie into the deep history of your world: altars to strange gods, pieces of unbelievable history, that kind of thing.
Don’t Make Nonbenevolent Tricks Persistent
If there’s a fountain that increases the maximum hit points of anyone who drinks from it by 1, it’s okay if it’s permanent. If there’s a machine which switches brains around the party, you should probably let exposure to sunlight set things right, even if some of the characters prefer things the new way (the now-Charles-Atlas-endowed wizard…). It might be the priest back in town who can set things right, it might be a good night’s sleep in the wholesome air, but if you don’t make it temporary, you’ve changed the nature of your game forever.
Players should, to some degree, choose to alter the nature of their game forever. If something is a known consequence of their actions, it feels an awful lot more like a trap than a trick. You have to foreshadow it, which is enough to make it a trap, but it’s going to end up even further down that road because the outcome’s negative, and looks an awful lot like damage (or a penalty, or whatever).
Treats should tie into the story of a place
The whole point of the treat is that it’s a trick-but-good. And Traps have to make sense, so why to treats? Because they’re the bait. The outcome of a treat should be somewhat predictable — if it’s unpredictable, THAT should be predictable! If it isn’t, then it’s basically roulette for the players, and they don’t know what’s coming next. Choosing to accept treasure is a choice. You can hand them a locked chest and say “you can’t tell what’s inside”, that’s fine, but sooner or later they’re going to have to find out. An ambivalent treat-without-a-label is going to read a lot more like a trick than a reward, because from their point of view, they don’t know what they’re going to get.
And besides: wouldn’t you like to reward them for exploring, sometimes?