It's a Trap!

Originally published at: https://www.torchbearerrpg.com/?p=813

Fall by Rebekah Bennington

Hello friends!

I want to apologize for this blog’s recent hiatus. Many of you probably don’t know that my other hobby (apart from making games) is coaching women’s flat track roller derby. 

I coach two teams in the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league: Manhattan Mayhem (a home team) and the Gotham Girls Roller Derby All-Stars (a travel team). Over the past six weeks, Mayhem has played twice (a victory against Queens and a loss to Bronx), and the All-Stars have played five games across two tournaments (victories against New Jax (Jacksonville, Fl.), Arch Rival (St. Louis, Mo.), Victoria (Melbourne, Australia), Crime City (Malmö, Sweden) and Dirty South (Atlanta, Ga.)).

As you can imagine, I’ve been a little distracted! The good news is that both teams are now headed into the post-season. Mayhem will play Bronx again for the local championship in August. The All-Stars still have a few more games ahead, but our success has put us back in the #2 spot ahead of Victoria, and we hope to reclaim the Hydra from Rose City (Portland, Ore.) at the International WFTDA Championships in Montreal this November.

In the meantime, I’ve got a little breathing room to think about games once again — which is good, considering that this time next week I’ll be at Gen Con (Burning Wheel will be at booth 2150; come say hi!). On to Torchbearer!

If You Trap It…

Last week, Luke and I participated in an AMA at the RPGdesign subreddit. Near the end, Lord Mordeth of our friends at Mordite Press asked about traps in Torchbearer (Build a Better Man Trap, page 127).

Is a failed test the only way to get a condition? Is a condition always accompanied by and effective success in the intent of the test?

I’ve really struggled with some of the logic from “Build a Better Man Trap” for years now. It’s hard for me to grasp how intent works with forced tests. For example, the Health Ob 6 test from the spike version of the Chute to Hell, or the Ob 3 Health test from the Dart Trap.

In these cases, I would think that the “intent” of the roll was to avoid gaining a condition. If you fail the Ob 3 Health test vs. the dart trap, you haven’t really succeeded or gained anything, you just got saddled with a condition. This seems to contradict the “failing forward” logic at work elsewhere in the game. I think most people simply gloss over this, and certainly that’s what we do and it does work fine. But the logic has always eluded me.

Lord Mordeth

This exchange helped crystallize for me something that is not explicit in the text. I think the natural tendency is to think of traps as something intended to kill or injure, but Torchbearer requires that you think about them differently.

First, conditions in Torchbearer are generally either the result of the grind or a failed test. And when a condition is given as the result of a failed test the character always (always, always) achieves the objective of the roll. The only way to get injured by a spear trap is to fail the Health test to avoid it but get a condition and successfully avoid it? What? How does that work?!

Second, there are only three ways for the GM to give a character the Dead condition: as a result of a kill conflict, as a result of having the Injured condition and failing a test involving the risk of physical harm or as a result of having the Sick condition and failing a test involving sickness, disease, poison, madness or grief. In the latter two instances, the GM is also required to inform the character’s player that death is on the line prior to the roll.

Given those limitations, how do you make a death trap in Torchbearer? Well, you don’t. Not really.

Here’s the secret: The objective of traps in Torchbearer is not to injure or kill. Those things are a byproduct of a particular trap’s method, but the objective is something else. People install traps to capture you, move you to another location, prevent you from opening something or going somewhere or even to fool you. If they happen to give you a condition instead? Well, that’s life as an adventurer for you.

The objective of the pit trap in Under the House of the Three Squires is to alert the guards to the adventurers’ presence and give the guards an advantage in the subsequent conflict. The objective of the sleeping gas panel in The Dread Crypt of Skogenby is to allow Haathor-Vash’s minions to capture interlopers that get too close. The trap vault in The Secret Vault of the Queen of Thieves is meant to fool adventurers into thinking they’ve actually found the vault, and perhaps trap them or keep them busy digging until Hsivin the Defiler’s cultists can get at them.

You get the idea. Once we have a trap’s proper objective in mind it should be much clearer how we can employ a twist on a failed test. The pit trap brings the guards running. The sleeping gas panel puts the characters to sleep. The trap vault might leave the characters trapped under rocks or standing outside the entrance to the vault which is now blocked off by fallen rocks.

We can also start thinking about conditions. The characters involved in the test get a condition, but they overcome the trap’s objective. When the pit trap goes off, the characters leap to safely but painfully bark their shins on the edge (injured), or they leap off but their hearts start racing (afraid) when they hear the distant guards wonder about the noise but go back to gambling. They inhale just a little of the sleeping gas (exhausted) but don’t get captured. They escape just ahead of the falling rocks but not before they understand the trap vault was just a trick (angry or injured).

So that’s it. When making traps for your Torchbearer games. Think about what the builder was trying to achieve and base your twists and conditions on that objective.

What do you think? Does that help traps make more sense for you?

P.S. Roller derby is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. There are currently 463 Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association member leagues on six continents. If you’re curious, there’s almost certainly a league near you. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

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Thief! You stole my blog post! :slight_smile:

In all seriousness, thanks for addressing this so thoroughly. This is a topic I have pondered since I first started into the game.

A remaining question I have is: how does this logic apply if the character is injured or sick and death is on the line? The GM warns the player that further injury will kill the character, but this interacts strangely with the above examples.

  • You die from the pit trap but don’t alert the guards?
  • You die from the gas but you don’t get captured?
  • You drown in the vault but don’t get fooled/delayed?

PS – You may want to put some kind of spoiler over that one paragraph that thoroughly spoils traps for every published module. :wink:

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Sorry man. I’m sure there’s more to be said about traps.

I think you’re overthinking death on the line. You may have died but spared your surging comrades a twist. And if you don’t have any surviving comrades it doesn’t matter…

As for the examples, I think of them more as teasers. I didn’t reveal where they were! I’ll note that you’re thinking of a completely different room than I am when it comes to the trap vault…

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This dichotomy has always been true. In fact it’s how I usually explain how I can kill the PCs at the start of a new player one shot:

I can kill you if you lose a kill conflict.
I can kill you if you have all the conditions and the grind gives you another.
And I can kill you if you are injured or sick failure would make you injured or sick a second time but as always I can only give conditions as a price for success so it’s more nuanced than that. It doesn’t make sense if you are trying to safely cross the crumbling bridge and you make it but die on the other side. If you were trying to hold open a collapsing tunnel so your friends could get out… that’s a different story. Just following this rule makes death dramatic and meaningful.

Edit: It might be a good idea to record our convention rule briefs and put them on youtube to get to one that’s precise, concise and useful.

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