Sunday, August 21, 2011

Punji Sticks and Agent Orange: Fantasy F---ing Vietnam and being Intentional about Fun

I love traps in D&D, even more than I love most monsters. They're a chance to be heinously creative in the most violent way possible and, what can I say, I enjoy getting a chance to do that. Equally enjoyable, though, is watching a group of players successfully navigate a trap. As much as I enjoy the violence inherent in traps (and, to some degree, we all do, seeing as we're playing D&D) I think I enjoy the creativity even more, which is why I think I actually enjoy watching players successfully deal with a trap even more than watching their characters caught, hurt, maimed or killed by my traps; of course, that's still an entertaining consolation prize.

Because there's creativity on both sides of a well-run trap of this type, I'd like to be on the other side of the screen when some of these are encountered; I'd like to be creatively dealing with traps for a change, and marveling at the creativity of the ref, instead of the other way around. In fact, I'd like to play in a game, no, a campaign with lots and lots of traps in it. I'd like to play in a game of the type that is commonly referred to as "Fantasy F---ing Vietnam." That is, I'd like to play in a game where dangerous traps are everywhere and a significant part of each game is working through finding and dealing with those traps, in a way reminiscent of the experience of soldiers fighting the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, who had to constantly be on the alert for all sorts of traps. (So, yes, in some ways, I'm a frustrated player, though I do honestly enjoy ref-ing; it's just that I'd love to be both ref-ing and playing.)

I currently own, in hard copy, two trap books. Both were originally published before I was born. One is Dragontree's Handbook of Traps and Tricks and the other is Flying Buffalo's Grimtooth's Traps Too. I bought them so that I could run Old School traps in my games. Both of them are excellent and full of nasty traps. I've noticed, though, that there are two different kinds of traps in these books.

The first kind of trap is the kind I bought the books for: devious, nasty traps that require creativity, cleverness and caution to survive. They're the kind of traps I hope I emulate in my Tuesday Traps series. I like to define them as "fair but cruel." They're likely to catch unprepared players off guard, but they're not unavoidable. I think it's fair to compare these to punji pit traps in Vietnam. These traps injured, maimed and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers, but that was largely because they didn't have the luxury of poking about with ten-foot poles; to grossly oversimplify, they were carrying their rifles in their hands.

There's another kind of trap, though, that I could call the "gotcha" trap. It's a trap where there's really no escape, no way to detect the trap before hand and, even if you could detect it, no way to disable it. As an example, the last trap in Grimtooth's Traps Too is microscopic flesh-eating worms encased in the spine of a book; when a character opens the book, the worms are released and, unnoticed by the character, worm they way into the character's body. The ref now has carte blanche to do whatever he wants to the character, whenever he wants to do it. That's it, no warning, no discernable trap, no possible way a character can have any idea what happened until it's too late. I think it's fair to campare these traps to Agent Orange, the industrial herbicide that thousands of soldiers were exposed to without knowing (putting aside whether the government knew about it or not- I'm already a bit worried that I'm going to hit a raw nerve by digging deeper into this Vietnam metaphor) that it would do all sorts of horrible things to them, usually later on in their lives. There wasn't anything they could do to avoid it and there were no warnings, no matter how careful or creative they were.

These kinds of traps, then, are another way to decrease the kind of fun I look forward to with traps at the table because, once again, they kill creativity, because players can't use their creativity to defeat traps.

Not only that, but when players don't have any chance at all of dealing with traps through roleplaying, they eventually stop roleplaying and start asking to roll dice. When you can roll dice, you've got a chance, no matter how small, of detecting microscopic worms and then rolling again and avoiding or destroying them; you don't have to be able to explain how you did it. You just did, 'cus the dice said so. And that- having to use the dice to defend yourself against the GM- is lame.

Now, I understand that there are other kinds of fun out there. There's a goofy, let's watch our characters die sort of fun that is OK with gotcha/Agent Orange-style traps, and it's one kind of Old School kind of fun. There's a New School kind of fun where the ability to deal with traps is part of the character's build and dealing with traps with die rolls with really high modifiers is validation of the skill points or feats or powers put toward that ability- the kind of fun where playing the game is quite a bit about testing your character build.

Both of these are legitimate kinds of fun. They're just not my kinds of fun.

(At least, they're not the kinds of fun I am usually interested in when I'm playing an RPG; I actually think I could enjoy both of these kinds of fun, provided the first kind was for a one-shot or one uncharacteristic adventure and provided that the second kind had build options that didn't seem to me to be ridiculously arbitrary from the designer's standpoint; that is, I can appreciate character building in Risus much more than character building in 3.5. But that's another post for another day.)

My kind of fun, when it comes to traps, is where both the ref and the players are clever, creative and careful and both the ref and the players get to enjoy watching whoever's on the other side of the screen be, or show off the fruits of being, clever, creative and careful.

What's my point in all this? My point is first of all that it's a good thing, if not particularly of life-or-death importance, to know what kind of fun you like. I've done that, and maybe helped you figure out what kind of fun you like, in which case this post will have been worth something.

My second point, though, is that certain kinds of fun can be fragile, especially the kinds of fun that take more work. I think that running traps the way I find most enjoyable takes more work than running traps of either the "gotcha" style or the roll-roll-done style, and I think that's why it's rarer. If not intentionally maintained, this style of play will naturally morph into one of the other two styles; if I'm not careful to make sure this trap has feasible ways to be discovered or if I don't put enough work into it and include enough detail so that this trap can actually be role-played, it's going to be a gotcha or roll-roll-done trap. If I let my players roll to discover traps because it's the umpteenth time they've asked, or if I let my inner tyrant-GM push aside my inner referee because the players are frustrating me somehow and I want to "show" them, I'm going to be slipping into the other kinds of fun (or un-fun, in the case of vengeful GM-ing).

It's easy to slip one way or the other. I don't want my traps to be wimpy, so it's easy for me to slip into gotcha traps. I don't want my players to get frustrated, so it's tempting whenever they ask to roll for something I want them to role-play (they, to their credit, don't do this nearly as often as they used to). Even though I recognize that these other types of fun are legitimate, if I want to have my kind of fun then I have to be intentional and put work into defending it. That's part of why I adopted Courtney's format for traps for my Tuesday Traps; they force me to make sure I'm not pulling any gotcha traps. Sure, it takes more work to think of at least a few ways to deal with the trap, but I have to put the work in if I'm going to have this kind of fun.

So I think about my fun and I defend my fun, not by tearing other kinds of fun down but by putting in the work to maintain the style of play that I find fun.