Finding traps in OSR gaming

Hi folks,

Have been chatting with some of my players about ACKS as I gear up to run a campaign, probably starting in a couple of months. The topic of traps came up, and how they are dealt with in OSR gaming.

Our RPG background is varied, but if you’re talking D&D and similar, we’re Pathfinder players. In Pathfinder, it’s pretty simple. You roll on the relevant skill to see if the PC notices a trap in the room. If it’s poorly or well hidden, there may be modifiers, but generally speaking, roll the dice and see what happens.

Now, my understanding is that OSR games are intended to work a bit differently. Players are generally expected to work this stuff out for themselves. Ask questions about the room they are about to enter, toss items onto tiles, poke things with 10’ poles, send in a disliked henchman, etc.

What I’m struggling with is: Essentially, this feels like it would come down to whether I decide whether they’ve looked carefully enough at something, and decide whether their character would spot it, which feels a lot like “DM decides whether you live, or save or die.”. I feel like if I describe anything that could remotely resemble a trap, players will decide “Yep, must be a trap there”, but that if I drop red herrings there will be a feeling of wasted time. And of course if I decide that they haven’t done enough to notice a trap, they’ll feel hard done by. Last of all, it feels like, if they experience enough traps, they’ll just build a list of everything they need to check for, and present it to me for every room they encounter, making it a “standard trap check”, which would kind of take the interest out of it.

My general approach when running games with skills has been to roll on skills, as expected, but to provide bonuses and penalties depending on any details the players care to give on what they’re doing.

How are you actually running traps in your OSR games?

As a rule, I try to make finding traps easy and disarming traps narrative. I only put traps in places where some sentient would have reasonably put a trap - vault doors, treasure chests, false entry tunnels into the fortress, &c. Most of the time my players have a good gut feeling that a trap is there, and we use the Finding Traps thief/dwarf skill as a last-minute “danger sense” saving throw - if they make the roll, the hairs on the back of their neck stand up and they get a round to act before it goes off. Disarming / circumventing is where I like to get into the nitty-gritty OSR play; using wax to plug poison dart holes, sending livestock into the scythe traps until they jam, using 10’ poles to open trapped chests and avoid the spray of burning oil, and so forth.

You might also enjoy Hack and Slash’s extensive thoughts on traps in old-school play:

Some of this I brought with me to ACKS, so I don’t know if everyone approaches it the same way. But what I aim for (without claiming I achieve it 100% of the time) is to give players both their die roll and a shot at a narrative solution, largely independently. So if you say you’re checking for traps or trying to disarm a found trap, you get that roll, usually without penalties or bonuses.

Over and above that, any trap I place has a decided-on method of action and a trigger. If you tell me you’re taking a particular action that would reveal or bypass or disable a trap, that happens, full stop, no roll required.

In theory (i.e., when I remember, and can do it without being too obvious), every trap has a clue as well. Subtle is good here; especially since they still get their rolls, I don’t feel bad if I’m too subtle. Hack and Slash linked above was a big influence here.

A key concept around giving player (not character) clues though is exploration speed. Taking ten minutes to move 120 feet or less, I try to give that clue. Tapping with a 10’ pole sounds hollow, there are slits in the wall, whatever. Moving faster in the dungeon, which I give players the option of doing (but also sacrifices mapping), I usually don’t.

So far I haven’t seen it make anything too easy. If anything, it just makes sense out of the Thief’s traditionally horrendous skill chances for me if they get two bites at the apple, player skill and die roll.

More generally, the thing about early or OSR D&D compared to Pathfinder and modern D&D, is the odds are stacked against starting characters enough that players really should be finding lateral, non-“I roll my attack/skill” solutions to problems. If you shut those lateral solutions down out of a fear the players are getting away with something or having it too easy, you’re going to spend a long, long time playing doomed first level characters.

Taking ten minutes to move 120 feet or less, I try to give that clue. Tapping with a 10' pole sounds hollow, there are slits in the wall, whatever. Moving faster in the dungeon, which I give players the option of doing (but also sacrifices mapping), I usually don't.

I've always interpreted the movement rules in this way, too. Players get a choice: either move slowly (standard 10 minute turns) and get lots of warnings about traps (with guaranteed active-search dice rolls) at the cost of more random encounters, or move quickly (with faster 1 minute turns) but get hit by surprise traps and ambushes. As long as default movement is at the snail's pace recommended by the rules, I'm going to stack the odds in favor of the players getting fair warning that "something here seems out of place", so that traps never just appear out of nowhere.

I also agree about thief skills. This is already somewhat explicit in the ACKS rules for moving silently, where thief skills aren't opposed by normal listening checks, but are a sort of awesome trump card that works on top of the baseline ability of any adventurer to move quietly and cautiously past inattentive monsters. Traps, especially save-or-die traps, should work the same way.