Traps Are People Too

From Ian Winterbottom

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0216

Traps Are People Too

The subject of traps is an important, but much overdone one in fantasy roleplaying. Dungeon crawls, in particular, fall victim. It can get monotonous, not to say boring, as the party encounters more and more elaborate mechanical and magical devices and disasters prepared, it seems, with the PCs specifically in mind – as, of course, they were!

However, once you get out of the dungeon and your adventures begin to have a plot or a story rather than being an endless trek through rooms and passages, it gets harder to prepare those surprises in advance. Worth bearing in mind then is one of the first ideas I came up with – NPCs as traps.

The central thing that a scenario or story has that a dungeon often doesn’t is NPCs. What if the NPCs themselves become traps, snares for the unwary? These would be traps that couldn’t be circumvented by a simple die roll, the dwarf’s underground abilities, or the elf’s secret doors percentage. The PCs can’t dodge them on autopilot; the players have to think!

There are many ways of finding good NPCs, of making them individual, believable, real and important; but what better way of making them important to the plot than making them the plot? Cast, trap, and plot hook in one parcel.

It makes life much easier and more fun if, for instance, you can arrange for at least one or two members of the party to be NPCs, belonging to and played by yourself. They’re useful – and not just as cannon-fodder, either. Literally any NPC can be a plot key given a little thought. And, what’s more, it’s fun!

Use Secrets As Traps

The first thing to think about with these booby-trapped NPCs is secrets. Every home – or rather every NPC – should have at least one. (Give PCs secrets too, if you can arrange it, as that gives you an extra “handle” to steer them with.) The computer user’s acronym WYSIWYG, What You See Is What You Get, is exactly what not to aim for in your choice of “trapped” NPCs. Think about it; how many of your secrets would you confide to the first chance acquaintance you happen to find?

Given a little thought, you can come up with some real beauties for secrets. Temperament, alignment, past history, need for money, likes and dislikes; all of these and more are things you can’t see, but still get, from that henchman (or woman), interpreter, servant, or guide. Appearances should – must – be deceptive! Not necessarily all the time, but enough to keep the players on their toes.

Think of that beloved item of the comics: the secret identity. Superheroes aren’t the only ones who need them. What about the buxom, but untouchable, barmaid of the inn who can freeze lustful clientele with a glance and who keeps her bedroom door well barred? This is maybe because, at night, she doesn’t want anyone to find out her room’s empty as she goes roof-running in her secret identity of mid-to- high-level thief!

The valuables of any well-to-do person staying at the inn are, of course, fair game. Because she takes care to make her entry from the outside, it’s unlikely anyone will suspect an inside job!

Maybe she just robs the PCs of something they need and they have to figure out who did it. Maybe they catch her at it and even recruit her? Later, does she let them down or betray them or could she be the one who saves their bacon when they’re kidnapped and imprisoned by the villain?

Why is she a thief, by the way? Does she like it, or is it a reluctant activity? Is she forced into it because she has to take care of a young or ill relative, or perhaps because someone has a hostage to guarantee her compliance? Why is she such a good thief? What’s her past, her story? Maybe she was once a circus acrobat who had to leave when her relative was hurt in an accident? Perhaps the local thieves’ guild makes her steal for them in return for caring for her relative? She’d probably be very grateful to someone who helped her out of this situation.

All this, from just one NPC!

Think about exactly what secrets that NPC could have. The next few tips explore a some of the possibilities.

Alignment Secrets

Is the NPC good, evil, lawful, or chaotic by nature? Principled or unprincipled? Selfish, greedy, decent, or kind? Is he one thing disguised as the other for his own advantage? Has his alignment been changed in some way, such as by a curse, charm, or other magic? Will he revert to type at the right, or wrong, moment?

Personality Secrets

Is he brave or a cowardly back-shooter? Will he stand up for himself or not? Cheat or not? Is he bad-tempered, a bully, or seems so? And if so, why? Maybe he has a reason–someone knows something about him or has some hold over him? One of my players had a pair of stalwart fighter henchmen who were great in a dungeon, but as soon as they were let off the leash in “civilised” country they went drinking and broke up the nearest bar. It cost him thousands of gold in repairs, weregild, fines, and the like to get them out of trouble when adventure called!

Class Secrets

Is the NPC classed or does he have an occupation? If he is a classed character, does anyone know it? Sartor Onehand, affable and hard-bargaining local merchant, was the local representative of the capital’s Thieves’ Guild in one of my games. He was the “Mafia capo” who could be very useful or very dangerous depending on how he was encountered and treated!The obsequious “butler” of the retired paladin, Sir Peregrin, was the secret leader and evil cleric of a mixed band of brigands.

That bluff “fighter” might be a ranger, or even a druid. Magnus Magnifex, originally patron of one of my parties, ended up as one of its most powerful characters, a thief-illusionist.

Secrets From The Past

Was the NPC always what he is now, or was he once something different? If so, what caused the change? Is he on the equivalent of some kind of witness protection program? Has he a past to hide or one to be proud of? Has he enemies, is someone looking for him? What’s he doing here?Freelance thief, Capricorn, broke into what seemed an ordinary house and stole a gold statuette. It turned out the house was the secret temple of the death god, whose sacrifices were random murders, and the statue was sacred to them.

Now the cult and the thieves’ guild are after him and he’s running for his life! Can you help him contact the guild and somehow get the cult’s statuette back to them without him getting murdered?!

Family Secrets

Has the NPC got a family? If so, who and where are they? As a twist, her family members could be her hostages, enemies, or rivals. Perhaps she is seeking revenge for their deaths? Do the PCs know one or more members, although they might not realize it?I once had the Black and White Brothers, identical twins, one good, one evil. Encountered in turn or on a random basis, they were a problem for the characters because they couldn’t figure out why this “guy” kept changing his personality and denying their accusations.

He was even able to supply alibis when the PCs were damned sure he’d done the dirty!Another family plot concerned Rosamunda the Fair, abductee rescued by the party and returned to her wedding. She proved an embarrassment when the PCs discovered the hard way that “she” was a doppelganger who had killed the real bride, as the creature went bananas at the wedding feast.

This not only provided an exhilarating evening as everybody tried to figure out who was what, but it earned the group some exceedingly powerful enemies and even put them on the run since some considered them allies of the monster, others regarded them as enemies of the bride, groom, or their families, and still others thought them merely baddies trying to trick the wedding party in hope of reward. A final group considered them to simply be dangerous idiots who should be imprisoned or even terminated to prevent any further trouble.

Secrets Of Association

Who associates with the NPC? What sort of friends has he got – and what sort of enemies? What convictions does he have and how will they affect his interaction with the PCs?Frater Jerome, heavy-handed lawful good cleric, travels mob- handed and detests magic of any kind, which he regards as the province of the devil. Not only will he destroy anything he suspects of being a magic item, he will “tithe” the owner a percentage of his wealth, by force if necessary.

He is supported by as many henchmen and lesser clerics as you may consider necessary.He has, of course, a power of detect magic, which is always “on”, and therefore will detect any magic used in his presence, no matter how benevolent. Is he on one side or another of some local feud? A member of some society, secret or otherwise? Does he have knowledge somebody wants or would rather was kept secret? Does he “know too much” or possess something someone covets, perhaps enough to kill him for? If he/she does get killed, who or what will he leave as a legacy? Perhaps an item or knowledge.

Perhaps a dependent, “Little Nell” or the equivalent, alone and friendless in a hostile world and in need of heroes to protect her (or him!). Was he a spy or the fantasy equivalent of an undercover cop and in the middle of a mission?

Ringing The Changes

Another trap, the Character Chameleon, is the seeming friend who is really an enemy. He could also be the opposite: the enemy who turns out to be a friend.

For example:

  • The reluctant werewolf who is trying to fight the curse of lycanthropy and the need to go “out on the tiles” at full moon.
  • One of the characters in David Eddings’ Belgariad is a reluctant werebear, that way to protect the young Belgarion.
  • I’ve also used a Reluctant Vampire, M. le Baron de Sanguine (bit of a giveaway, that!), who contracted his affliction while delving as an amateur archaeologist. After killing his son during the original onset of the disease, he is now dwelling in an isolated castle peopled with zombie servants to keep himself from spreading his “disease”.
  • A Charmee might also be good. The evil character under a good spell is a bit old hat, but what about the other way around? That seemingly evil wizard might be your best ally if you could only release him!

Another Chameleons is the officially “good” character. The elf perhaps, who is just a trifle off his rocker on some subjects. For instance, racism might rear its ugly head. Elves come across as somewhat superior in many stories. Perhaps this particular elf is paranoid enough to consider elvenkind as some sort of master race?

Perhaps he practises a kind of snobbery in that he is willing to put up with humans, dwarves, and other races, but considers them his social inferiors and makes that very plain? Maybe he really detests half-elves, whom he describes as mongrels or half- breeds.

Consider also a demi-human villain. Not just a traditionally good type, such as the elf or dwarf, but someone like Ozymandias, a gnomish illusionist with a chip on his shoulder. Instead of the well-meaning, bumbling, absent- minded average gnome, this one is contemptuous of not only other races but his own – in fact, of everyone who isn’t him! Although he is careful to disguise this fact, of course, with most people being unwittingly almost permanently under the effects of spells such as charm or friends.

None of his intimates – or at least they think they are – will hear a word said against him. Somewhere in his hidden past he’s managed to upset even his own long-suffering people and been banished. Now he needs allies and friends. His loyalty, however, is nonexistent. He’ll betray them, let them down, and stab them in the back just for the practice, if not from spite.

Oooo, he’s so evil! His preferred method of doing business, however, is to allow the party to dig themselves into the deepest doodoo possible, then escape with the loot, preferably informing the enemy of their whereabouts before leaving. In my story, he did it with the drow closing in! How the party escaped is another NPC story!

A lone, renegade drow, it occurs to me, would make an exceedingly good behind-the-scenes villain. His reluctance to expose himself to light means he would appear only at night or in deep shadow. His allies and minions might not even be aware of who and what he is. A further reversal might be if one of said minions, perhaps a thief or swashbuckling pirate, suddenly becomes aware of the villain’s true identity as a dark elf and enlists with the PCs!

It isn’t necessary to take this sort of trouble with every NPC. In fact, that would be overkill. Though you might find you now need to give each NPC at least a short description to avoid the players’ guessing which one is important! And not all your plots need be character driven, of course; ring the changes still more by having some begin as “normal” in the tavern, or by the dying messenger gasping “Parcel for Sidney”! And if that isn’t giving my antiquity away I don’t know what is! But you’ll find it worth putting some thought into those NPCs; and, as I’ve said, it can be great fun!

Alignment Switcheroo

One final suggestion. Consider alignment change – if it can affect PCs, why not NPCs? Either by putting on the wrong helmet or by story means. The assassin and/or warrior turned cleric by remorse for killing the wrong man? A half-orc shaman possessed by the Spirit of the Glade and turned druid. A thief become possessed by the spirit of a long dead Wizard? (Which lich is which? [Apologies!]) And last, but never least, remember you’re never alone with schizophrenia! Get two villains, or even more, for the price of one – even hero and villain combined!


Get the latest download of RolePlayingMaster at for the best available DM support software for D&D/D20. RolePlayingMaster now offers advanced quality word processing for adventures and campaigns, strong PC/NPC generation and intelligent generators (including equipment generation), and great support for in-game management of combat. This program has it *all* – easily adapted to other D20 genre and campaign settings.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Self-Replicating Coin–With A Twist

From Jeff Groves

The ultimate self-replicating magical item would be a coin. Put it in your pouch, wait a couple days, and you have a couple dozen more coins! Of course, it would have to be undetectable, lest all the fun is taken out of it. If you knew one of your coins was producing more coins, but didn’t know which one, would you spend any of it?

Graphic of section divider

World Management With Photoshop

From Jared Dyche

I don’t know if you have or are familiar with Adobe Photoshop, but this program (or a similar one, though I don’t know of any that work with layers the same way off the top of my head) could let you have all sorts of different, world-level information ‘on hand’.

At the base level, you can have your ‘World Map’ (it could be the specific region, or whatever you’d like) and then use different layers to show different sorts of connections.

For example, you could have one layer that shows the economic info for your world (imports, exports, trade routes, etc.), another that shows political alliances, and yet another layer for PC movement (even one for major NPC movements). If you only want to deal with one layer, all you need to do is hide the other layers.

This does involve a bit of initial work, setting up your maps on your computer and putting in the different layers, but it could make your life easier.

I wouldn’t shell out the cash for this program if this is all you’ll use it for, but if you spend any time at all taking/editing digital pictures then it could well be worth it, and if you already have the program, then I’d recommend trying it.

Graphic of section divider

More Time Travel Tips

From Mike Bourke

re: Manual Ebert’s time travel tips in Roleplaying tips #215 in which he solicits for other solutions to the issue of time travel in an RPG:

As someone who has permitted (and used) time travel extensively within a superhero campaign, and who is currently running a time-travel based campaign, there are a number of alternative solutions to consider.

Sheaf Theory

This is a variant on the many-worlds theory of quantum physics. What appears to be a contiguous time line is in fact not so; it is actually a large number of virtually- identical space-times with identical histories, that diverge and separate at each critical point in history.In actual fact though, they are not identical, but the fact that one radioactive atom on the far side of the galaxy did not decay until one microsecond later than in the reference time line is not all that distinctive a difference.

When large-scale alternative outcomes are involved however, the divergences become more noticeable.Under this theory, any changes that the characters cause are real and have no impact on their original time line. In fact, the shift in location of individual photons and quanta, the gravitational effects of their presence, etc., ensure that the instant they arrive in the past, they cause the entire time line in which they are present to diverge from the core time line.

It is possible to construct an entire “physics” based on this concept, which I have done for the superhero campaign I mentioned.

The Resistant Time Line

Events have a temporal inertia, equivalent to the physical inertia possessed by moving objects. In order to cause a change in events, that inertia has to be overcome.Conservation laws no longer apply in the same way because they only have impact in a closed system, and the “closed system” in question stretches from the instant of departure into the past to the instant of arrival.

“Paradoxes” thus become possible because they oversimplify the situation and assume that the universe is a closed system at any given instant, when this is not at all the case.Once again, a completely plausible “physics” can be worked out for this alternative. There are also a number of sub-variations, sometimes with quite interesting consequences. For example, if the only way to achieve faster-than-light (FTL) is by leaving the reference space- time and entering the hyperspace plane of existence through which time lines propagate, then it can be shown that there is a finite limit to the propagation rate of temporal changes.

Considering that an individual must possess a “personal time line” showing their experiences in the sequence they experienced them, and can therefore be isolated from the main time line by virtue of FTL travel, it is possible to set up a branch of early-warning stations to detect temporal tampering and set in motion moves to counter it. The result: Timewar! This is the particular variant used by the time- travel campaign I mentioned.

I recommend reading “Thrice Apon A Time” by James P. Hogan for other insights; “The Proteus Operation” (same author) for an alternative perspective; “Giants’ Star” (same author, part of the “Giants” series) for still more ideas. I also got some useful ideas from “Timemaster”, an RPG game published by Pacesetter (here’s a review link: Review of Time Master ), and Robert Heinlein’s “The Number Of The Beast”.

Graphic of section divider

More Prison Tips

From David Smith

I read your article about prison scenarios in fantasy role- playing games, and it reminded me of a prison scenario in my D&D game. Here are the details, followed by lessons I learned from what happened…

Soldiers captured the four PCs and, later, a judge presented them with three options:

  1. Fight a predetermined number of warriors in combat. If you win, you are free. (Locals take the win as a sign of favour from their god, which would [in the natives’ minds] absolve the PCs of guilt).
  2. If you lose you will be sent to work in the gold mines as a slave.
  3. Appeal this decision to the Emperor, (but the PCs learned most appeals result in the immediate execution of the accused).

Grudgingly, the PCs played along with the authorities and were incarcerated in a large prison cell within the Great Temple. They quickly escaped from their rope bonds, of course. Suddenly, they decided to escape from the whole temple altogether! (“What!?” I thought. If they get caught, they’ll probably die, but if they fight tomorrow in combat and win, they’ll be celebrated).

After various NPC role- playing/combat interactions, they eventually did escape, securing new armor and equipment, magical items, and secret non-magical scrolls providing background about the religious tenets of the land. In the process, they helped another prisoner escape too.

I learned a few things from this “prison” set-up:

  1. No matter how much you plan, PCs will always do something that the DM does not expect.
  2. Expect the PCs to escape regardless. Therefore, provide for this possibility to occur in your planning.
  3. Since guards do strip PCs of all weapons and gear, provide additional items they can secure if they manage to escape.
Graphic of section divider

Start Small – Getting Kids Interested In RPGs

From Sam Chupp

Kids and Roleplaying Games

People have asked me how I got my kids interested in RPGs. Basically, there is no one tried-and-true method, but there are a few guidelines:

Pre-Literate Children

Before a child can read, they can still do imaginative play…and this is where you get started. Assist the child in her make-believe; create castles, spaceships, old west corrals. Do what you can to encourage role-playing activity. This is the time when you start to instill a sense of adventure and creative expression. Of course, you’re going to have to get in there and RP, too! Your child will feel even less inhibited if you’re willing to interact and model good RP.

This might be a good time to model “Rules” as well – at least, as rough guidelines. Using a modified rock-paper- scissors challenge system might be good enough to solve the “I GOT YOU! NO YOU DIDN’T! YES I DID!” arguments. Encourage character development by asking questions about the character your child is playing, such as:

“What does she eat for dinner?” “Who are her favorite people?” “What does she like to do for fun?” “Does she have any friends? If so, who?”

This will help the child start to think of the *make believe* persona as a character, with independent thoughts, hopes, dreams, and goals…which will also be handy for differentiating between “magical thinking” and RL.

Post-Literate Children

Kids who can read can play your basic everyday tabletop RPG. The trick is to find one that they like. The trick to finding one they like is to find character concepts that excite them. The trick to finding exciting character concepts is to watch how they react to various characters in the media or in stories you tell.

For example, Jay, a young man in my kids’ gaming group, is kind of a hipster sort of kid who likes to be cool. He thinks Keanu Reeves’ character Neo in “The Matrix” is pretty cool. So I gave him a character who looked and acted and seemed like that character…and I think he really likes it.

Gee, another gamer in my group, likes to play faeries and such. She enjoys playing a faerie dragon. I had to make up my very own core character class, the “Faerie Dragon” class, to allow her to play and advance with the rest of the players, but so far it has really worked to get and keep her attention.

The point is, don’t quibble with the child. Just create the character they want, the character of their dreams. Even if it’s a little silly, it will pay off when they catch the “gaming bug” and start *asking* you to play.

Tweens & Teens

Tweens (ages 10-12) and Teens (13+) must be approached differently. My thought is that you would do better to take a clearly cool “adult” RPG and tone it down in terms of hard core “mature” content and offer it to the teens and tweens to play. They’ll feel more grown-up, and in the meantime, you can still share a common language and common experience gaming with them.

Whatever you do, remember: kids are not tiny adults. But they do not wish to be looked down upon. They are people who have very little power and are constantly having to worry about what they may or may not do. Being someone else for a while can give them the opportunity to have fun and make mistakes in a safe way, without causing them lasting harm.

Thanks for listening!