What’s A Hazard? What’s A Trap?

What’s the difference between a trap and a hazard.

This question was on my mind while working on a new Dungeon Generator for Campaign

Logger with Generator Sage ELF.

Is trap vs. hazard mere semantics? Or do we get value out of the differentiation?

Here’s where I landed, with a focus on hazards.

The PiXiE Framework

The Agile GMing system I’m developing with Jochen Linnemann breaks GMing campaigns into three phases:

  • Prepare
  • EXecute
  • Evaluate

PXE or PiXiE when saying it out loud.

Prep is important but should not waste your time. It should enable better gameplay, increase your confidence to GM, and give you an edge in places you’ve focused your time.

Execution is the gameplay. You wield your prep and ad lib by reacting to your players and rolling with the die results.

Evaluation is how you master your craft. Muse over how gameplay went. Figure out how to fix friction spots and soft areas. Double-down on what you learn you do well. Find gap and fill them.

I look through these three lenses when considering design questions, like trap vs. hazard.

Does the distinction matter to any phase of PXE?

I say yes.

My Definition of Hazards

Hazards are passive environmental dangers that hinder or endanger the PCs.

My Definition of Traps

Traps are placed dangers set to trigger under certain conditions.

Hazard Prep

I’m going to prep hazards differently than traps.

Traps speak to me of NPC actions. I’m designing traps based on what NPCs need to protect or why they need to harm others.

With hazards I’m looking at how the setting can create dangers that’ll harm the characters, weaken the characters by reducing their resources, or make the party more vulnerable to other dangers.

An avalanche or ceiling collapse from loud noise or vibrations, for example.

I need to support believability with setting details. An avalanche suddenly appearing in the desert would have players crying foul. So hazards are often dependent on the setting you’ve built.

Bandits might technically be a hazard in the Crimson Forest, but my definition says hazards are more passive and part of the environment. So focus on natural, supernatural, and magical dangers produced by the environment.

I want to make a good game out of hazards by giving characters a chance to avoid or reduce hazard effects. So I’ll prep clues, warnings, and options or be ready to ad lib such when players offer ideas.

When I posted advance access to this article on my Patreon, awesome Patron Andy Fundinger added a good point:

I’d also consider that a trap has a history. Someone set it. That someone is likely still in your plot. Even if it’s a dungeon trap, the echo of the dungeon builder is still there in its purpose and traps. A hazard is part of your setting, it’s just there because of world building. It impacts the other plots but wasn’t created by them.

Hazard Execution

A trap or hazard might play differently according to your game rules.

For example, a Survival check might warn the party they’re in avalanche territory whereas an Investigation check might be needed to suss out rocks queued to fall with a rope pull.

Otherwise, I’m thinking gameplay is about the same.

Hazard Evaluation

After the session, I’d ask myself how well the trap or hazard performed.

From a utility perspective:

  • Did it catch the PCs?
  • Did it fulfill its purpose well — a lot of damage or resource reduction?
  • Did it play well within the ruleset (detection, mitigation, resolution)

From a story perspective:

  • Did it create drama or change the mood, energy, or emotion at the table? If so, was it the good kind?

There’s one big difference I’d muse on to evaluate trap vs. hazard, though.

For a trap, I want to know how it spoke to the NPCs + adventure component responsible for it. For example, if the PCs’ foe is supposed to be cunning, did the trap “play” cunning?

But for a hazard, I want to know how it speaks to my world building + adventure design.

The dangers in my adventures are like spokespeople. They gotta represent.

Traps need to embody and represent the minds who created them.

And hazards need to embody and represent the world that produced them.

PXE Your Designs

I feel if we carve traps and hazards up this way we get important distinctions that helps us GM better.

And a great approach to figuring stuff like this out is to decide how you’ll prepare, experience, and evaluate your designs.

Try the PiXiE approach yourself and see if it helps you gain clarity on things.