#RPGaDay2020 Day 25 - "Lever"
One of the most insidious and effective dungeon elements available to a GM is the "Hobbit Trap." It is so called because of Peregrin Took, who accidentally sends a bucket into the depths of the Mines of Moria thereby alerting every creature in the area to the Fellowship's presence. More generally, it is something the players come across with the words "It's a trap" practically written out in neon above it. And yet, the players are irresistibly drawn to it like a moth to flame, often with the same results.
The most obvious of these is a lever with no clear purpose. To make it a true hobbit trap, it can't be something that the players misunderstand. You can't have a portcullis with a lever nearby--the average person would logically believe that pulling the lever would quickly release the gate in case of emergency. If you had it do something else, that's just cheesy. You also can't have it be the only clear option available to players. If they are locked in a room, with just a lever, they will eventually pull the lever to move the story forward. Again, if you then have something bad happen, that's really just cheating.
To be a real hobbit trap, there has to be a lever in the middle of nowhere with no clear purpose, and other options have to be available to move the story forward. A room with many exits, and one lever on a wall or floor would be perfect. So would a corridor with branches and doors, and a lever. The party has absolutely no need to pull that lever...and if they do, then whatever happens to them is totally justified.
More subtle, but just as effective is the sealed container. There's a large metal or ceramic container, and it is sealed tightly, perhaps with magic as well. There is no reason for the party to open it, and yet...some people can't resist.
In my first Trinity campaign I had exactly this situation happen. The party was in a very dangerous location, and they came across a set of three sealed containers. Storywise, it might as well have been clearly marked "Hazardous waste. Do not open." The rogue says..."I open one and see what's inside." Literally every other person at the table yelled "NO!" but it was too late...what came out almost caused a total party wipeout.
At a slightly later time, in a later dungeon, the party was in the former home of one of the lich kings. They came across its body with a dwarven blade through it--the name of the lich king clearly written in dwarvish runes on the blade. The blade had been created specifically to kill this lich. As soon as they saw it, two of the players announced they were going to keep an eye on the rogue--who sure enough tried to get the sword and look at it. He was so upset when they dragged him away and wouldn't let him touch it. Would the lich have risen? It's not clear, but the party wasn't going to take that chance.
A more social version of this is "You look trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?" (from The Gamers). Players need to get help from NPCs. They have to make decisions about who to trust. And inevitably, there are people who just scream "Betrayer! Do Not Trust!" But since the last 127 encounters like this were traps, I bet that this one will be different.
Time for a "Greg is not immune" story. This happened to me literally today, gaming with one of my best friends that I've never gamed with before, and run by her partner as a birthday event for her. There were five players and the GM in total.
We were tracking down the source of the evil Zombie hoard, and came across a witch who used charisma/charm attacks on us. She wasn't evil...she couldn't be. She was soooo pretty. And she sent us off to take out a lich for her, and she gave us some magical items to help us. She wouldn't be betraying us if she gave us presents, right?
So we went to take on the lich, who was roughly 175 levels above us and risked a total party wipeout two hours into my friend's birthday game. The lich patted us on the head and asked if we saw any zombies among the masses of controlled undead he had serving him. Well, not exactly, but the pretty lady told us....oh, I get it. So the incredibly powerful witch using charm attacks on us and sending us to fight a lich didn't have our best interests at heart? Oh my. (Side note: I'm used to being called "not the brightest torch in the barrel" but not by both sides of a conflict in the same adventure. That's just mean.)
The final hobbit trap of this essay is the ever popular cursed item. If the party finds an item and it's cursed, that's just the way the fantasy games sometimes go. The party gets a new story arc, get the curse lifted magically, or worst case, find out how to undo the curse and handle it manually.
Sometimes, though, you can set them up as a hobbit trap. For example, a magical sword held in the hand of a corpse with 40 arrows protruding from it's head sort of signals that the last person using the sword didn't have the greatest experience. At this point, the fighter may think "But it's so maaagical, and I have a helm. It'll be fine." Besides weapons, cursed goblets in the hands of an ancient monarch, tarnished crowns, or a necklace inscribed with a language that nobody understands including any magical tests applied to it all make great hobbit trap.
A great story is a mix of things going well, and things going poorly. In a role playing game, hobbit traps are a great way to make things go poorly, give the characters a memory or a new story arc, and ultimately give them a break from things going as expected, by inflicting them with something that they really should have expected.