On Reader Mail, Bodies and Traps

Nadav Ben Dov writes

"I am wondering something about traps and tricks, following the Thursday Trick posts I really liked from your blog.

The posts, usually if not always, featured how to describe the traps' effect area as something visible the GM could describe as part of more and less cursory inspections.

But this begs the following from me: if the trap was good enough, it would leave corpses. If it wasn't there is a chance the corpses are found further inside or otherwise the place was cleaned already.

So I'm wondering: assuming such traps, is the appropriate conclusion that among the loot within are corpses of previous adventurers, if there is still loot to find?"
Short answer: Yes, usually.

Long answer: I am against the idea of rationality in dungeons.

People often misinterpret this statement to mean that 'funhouse' design is the only design. That is incorrect. What it really means is that for the purposes of actual gameplay, dungeons should make thematic sense, not literal sense.

There's this idea that every corner of every adventure should be exhaustively unearthed from 3.5. If that's the case, then you end up with this 'fridge logic' moment where you're like, "Wait, what the hell do the Owlbears drink, and how do the ogres ever make it past the Sphinx?"

But that's not what a dungeon is, see? A dungeon is what's past our realm of static steadfast sanity. It's on the other side, made of dreams, nightmares and horrors. You cross a threshold to enter and beyond, nothing remains the same.

But that doesn't mean it can't have resonance. Things can still have reasons for existing. They can still follow logic, twisted and dreamlike as though it may be. But the logic and the dungeon never ends. It can't be explored, fixed or finished.

So, really, worry less about it. Logically, there are many reasons for bodies to be gone. Monsters may come by to grab what the trap catches. Smarter monsters may loot them. The trap itself may dispose of the corpses to feed the giant entity that spawned them.

I ask myself, would a pile of bodies in this trap make it more interesting? Will it tempt the players to risk death to recover them? Will it provide some enhanced feeling of trepidation or terror?

Reader mail is a series supported by reader questions. If you think I'm full of crap, don't understand something I'm talking about, are simply curious about how I might handle a situation, or if you have any questions of your own you'd like answered, message me on Google Plus, or give me an e-mail at campbell at oook dot cz


  1. A long time ago I mused about the mythic resonance of the dungeon as a path of initiation ... Self-cleaning traps, perhaps, are a part of that.

  2. There is the possibility that the dungeon has never been explored before, too.

    Let's not drain all the fun out of exploring a fictional world by assuming someone has trod these stones before us... Just because we think we 'know' every corner of the real world, doesn't mean our made-up worlds have to be similarly charted, mapped, and Starbuck'ed.

    1. The thing is, if it hasn't been explored previously, one would expect to find nothing that marks a trap's *effects*. If nothing triggered the flame throwing wall trap, the opposite wall isn't about to be charred.

  3. This has given me a solid answer and some things to think about, so thanks :)

  4. Personally I think that corpses make great cues for more devious traps. If it's an asphyxiating gas trap there isn't much warning without a corpse, you know? And if I've learned anything from your traps series, and Ben Robbins' two blog posts on what makes an agency-fulfilling trap, it's that a trap without a warning is pretty much a dud as far as player engagement is concerned.

    So, while corpses can make some narrative sense or whatever, they really just tend to be super excellent trap indicators as far as I'm concerned. Who was the skeleton in rotten clothes? Who cares! He warned you about that poison dart that'd be sticking out of YOUR neck instead of his, and that's what's important. And if players really insist on magicking up some backstory for the guy, that's what my improvisational skills are for.


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