Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Traps in the media.

It's a classic image - the adventurer makes their way through the cobweb-shrouded tomb when his foot catches on a raised slab that sinks and causes doors to slam and spikes to protrude from the walls. It's so standard that it and the like appear in movies, video games and RPGs and usually we don't even think about it; well let's start.

The main problem with such devices is they're completely infeasible outside the premise of the 5-minute slot where they put a protagonist in jeopardy. They exist by themselves with no relation to anything around them and for me anyone who uses such a device is just being lazy.

The good use of traps or even puzzles is dependant on what it’s supposed to do. The “duh!” answer given by movies etc. is that it’s there to trap or kill people to prevent them getting to the shiny, shiny goal of their quest.

However consider traps placed in a working environment, perhaps a temple, a palace or even a high-tech security system would a trap that sent the entire edifice into a pit of molten lava or blew up the building be a logical step? Just imagine the High Priest/CEO trips over a shoelace, falls against the trigger, and destroys everything.

Even such devices should only be employed in a ‘it’s better destroyed than in the wrong hands’ in which case a good reason has to be provided as to why it wasn’t simply destroyed to begin with.

But movies tend to deal with long-lost temples and ruins; so this doesn’t apply does it? Well yes because unless the designers built everything with the expectation that it would be left abandoned it would be classed as a working environment and this constrains the type of traps that should be used.

A major difference in traps is whether they require constant maintenance or supply. A crossbow requires darts, tripwires need to be restrung and even pits will need to be emptied out, all this is perfectly feasible when it is expected that there will be people about to do these things, but what happens when the structure is abandoned?

The pit starts to fill, the spikes at the bottom start to rust and break from impact, the crossbow string wilts or snaps even assuming it has ammunition and that’s not to mention if the mechanisms themselves remain intact to trigger it.

Most of the traps that present themselves in such circumstances should simply not work, however that doesn’t mean an adventurer will have free run of the place – gross physical traps are still possible, but even those should be created with usage in mind.

Again the classic is the sealing of the doors, possibly with an added bonus of spikes, sand or closing walls. However in a working environment mistakes happen, or the occupants want to be able to question the intruders, or at the very least they want to be able to get to work after an intruder has been dealt with and therefore such traps must be reversible and given the inherent laziness, sorry efficiency, that people require that means it needs to be easily reversible. It might seem a great idea to suffocate any intruders in sand, but who is going to get rid of it and fill the hopper up again?

Such traps though are ideally suited to unoccupied areas and don’t require any reversibility; or do they? The problem with this type is that they work only once – the doors slam, the sand pours in, and the intruder suffocates; but what happens when the next intruder tries their luck? Rather than a trap they’re faced with a wall of stone. Breaking through, the sand pours out along with a sand-preserved body. That alone might scare some away, but hardy souls will press on through the next door and the trap has become useless except as an obstruction.

To create such a trap with an automatic reverse is difficult, but not impossible yet even here the problem lies with the age of the mechanism, the more complicated the device the more that can go wrong until it reaches the point it simply fails.

Of course all this only applies given an intelligent designer and an intelligent or, at the least, non-interfering client. Considerations of ammunition supply, rope maintenance may simply not occur to some, yet all this does is increase the probability that any such traps will simply fail either by the time the intruders arrive or after a number have attempted to gain entry.

A even worse scenario can also be envisioned when there have been a large number of access attempts as each intruder defeats one trap before succumbing to the next as the following intruder has one-less trap to deal with; the final intruder will find a hole in both sealed doors and the sand removed, the spikes jammed, the tripwire cut, and can simply stroll in to reach their goal.

This also applies to the puzzles that crop up, put the jewel in the eye of the god to open the secret tomb – fine, but once again having one intruder do so means the next doesn’t have to.

So how can this reasoning be applied to movies, books, RPGs and video games? By using the uncertainties. The doors seal, the sand pours and someone outside the trap finds the lever that stops and reverses the process, pulls it, and watches as the rotten mechanism snaps in their hand. An ingenious trap that expels a combustible fuel out of a tube and ignites it has been unused for centuries; gas builds up in the storage chamber and when an unlucky soul trips the spark the entire structure explodes. The swinging pendulum blade begins its descent, but at the point of its upswing the cord holding it snaps and the blade continues on unimpeded. For an audience that's learned the ways of the movie trap this may be more interesting than the original purpose.

For puzzles each subsequent step should reset the previous. The jewel is placed in the eye yet at the next puzzle, the jewel is returned to its original position and the way sealed off behind.

Traps and the like can be made logical for the circumstances it just requires a little thought.

[Update - The consideration of natural traps "Hey let's encourage a bunch of poisonous spiders to make a nest in our tomb" "Excellent idea now once we seal it what do they survive on?" "Um?"]


Orphi said...

Yeah, this one basically makes no logical sense.

This Aztec temple is thousands of years old, yet everything still works perfectly? What are the chances of that?

(The answer is usually of the form “ah, but these guys possessed such a supreme level of technology that they could make it that reliable. Yeah, right.)

Almost all of these traps only work once. And hey, to make them work more than once, wouldn't you need a power source from somewhere?

For that matter, why build a template laden with traps when you can just put 50,000 guards around the outside? Wouldn't a human warrior work far better than any mechanical trap? (Of course, thousands of years later, the place is deserted, so…)

What's even more fun, the hero is always been followed by an evil nemesis who can gain access easily because he's already disabled all the traps — neatly hilighting how rediculous the trap concept is to begin with!

FlipC said...

Well I can just about accept the "It still works" premise if it was specifically designed that way from the beginning.

In the book "Decipher" which is both historically and scientifically painful to read the ancient civilisation knew they wouldn't be around, knew that the systems they'd put in place had a high probability of failure over time and thus created multiple redundancies to alleviate this problem.

A similar situation arises in a Harry Harrison short story where an old astral navigation beacon fails. The Repairman sent out comments on the pipes carrying water had 2 feet thick walls to allow for the natural erosion over time.

In terms of power that can be included as a potential catastrophic reaction. Off the top of my head though I'd use a trip-stone that when depressed releases spikes from the ceiling, the floor then falls away and the body of the intruder falls onto a platform which raises both the spikes and the floor back into position. As the body decays and loses weight the platform then moves back into its original position.

The worst use of the nemesis is when the hero breaks through all the traps only to discover the nemesis waiting at the goal to gloat - um what how?

The second worst bit is when said nemesis traps the hero who then uses the un-trapped back door to escape. So why didn't you come in that way?

walkerno5 said...

You want a power source that lasts for thousands of years? The undead do a fine job here, Mummies and Zombies can go about maintaining systems themselves as well as presenting their own threat.

A large portion of silly-trap-temple/tomb stories already feature mystical mumbo-jumbo so it's not too much of a stretch to insert the zombies. ESPECIALLY with a tomb, and ESPECIALLY when in Egypt!

By the way Flip me old boy, half of your captchas seem to be coming up with no picture at all, requiring me to try and post (and fail) to reset it to a visible version. You might want to look at that!

FlipC said...

Magic, the mystical and supernatural is an option until you ask the stupid question - "If I can do this with magic why I can't I just create a barrier that prevents anyone from entering except true worshippers?*"

Accepting their use if they have enough intelligence to both maintain and not set off any other traps there's the risk of revolt, if you use them as a trap themselves they can be hacked to pieces and pose no real greater difference than a standard trap.

Going further the undead pose no threat to the Cleric who'll just cast Turn Undead and saunter through.

Hmm the captchas thing sounds odd, trouble is it's a blogspot built-in item of which I have little control it's either on or off. Now I could turn it off, but then I'd want to turn off Anonymous posting to prevent spam comments.

Is it just happening at the moment, could it be just a temporary glitch?

*Incidentally this is why I shudder at the Password-protection of the Gryffindor and Slytherin common rooms - they've got talking paintings and sentient hats can't they have some visual scanning system on the entrances? At the start of term the prefect opens the entrance using a password and the first-years all enter and are logged. At that point they can just enter at will and no-one else can easy peasy.

walkerno5 said...

Hmmm, seems to have worked instantly on this one.


"Magic, the mystical and supernatural is an option until you ask the stupid question - "If I can do this with magic why I can't I just create a barrier that prevents anyone from entering except true worshippers?*"

Your expecting logic from a religious group? Even one that exists in a world where magic works will still believe in it's share of rubbish. Perhaps the temple is open but trapped so that the gods can visit, or because the promised one will come to claim the Sceptre of Blood and only the promised one could possibly evade the traps?

And perhaps' the Cleric's turn undead won't be nearly as effective within the temple of a god not his own?

Damn I miss roleplaying.

FlipC said...

Fair point, also that priests tend to gain their spells from their god so perhaps they don't have access to "Impenetrable Barrier" and view mages as daemon-spawn so can't ask them.

On the other-hand no worshipper would ever believe their temple and god would fall out of favour and therefore no requirement for perpetual maintenance would be required ;-)

Good point on the Turn Undead I don't recall any rules regarding that, though it has been a while... yes I miss it too. So what systems did you run?

walkerno5 said...

Who needs a rule? Make 'em up as you go along!

I played D&D, AD&D (Dragonlance setting mostly though also lots of campaigns in original settings), played a bit of Paranoia, Mechwarrior, and lots and lots of systems I made up. Also much wargaming.

Mostly killed off by video games, (SWOS, Civilization and Champ Man have a lot to answer for) a woman, and working for a living, in that order. Now also would have to compete with golf and (hopefully soon) some kids, so the time has just dissappeared!

Bring on retirement that's what I say!

FlipC said...

House rules for the win :-) Had one rule-lawyer complain that something wasn't written in the core-book so I took a pencil and added it; cue spluttering.

Yeah D&D, AD&D; difficult though as I started with WFRP and shifting from low fantasy to high fantasy was difficult. Paranoia's just fun the mental equivalent of just running around. After GW killed WFRP switched to Call of Cthulhu and that was fun in a different way, then that started to be phased out. Never did Mechwarrior; nor got into wargaming at the time it was too high a cost to get into with the price of models, paint, etc.

But yeah video games, work, and my old RPG buddies moving killed it for me. Shame really.