Review: Dungeon Fantasy Traps – Powered by GURPS

Together with the contents of the DFRPG Boxed Set, Kickstarter backers who backed at the “I want it all”-level (or added the pdf as an extra) got the pdfs of Dungeon Fantasy Traps and Dungeon Fantasy Magic Items. This weekend I am reviewing the former and next one the latter. Traps was written by  Jason Levine and Christopher R. Rice – who might be called the leadership of Ritual Path Magic Cabal. The two adepts certainly think alike on many subjects, so it’s interesting to see what they came up with on the subject of traps. Rice already already gave us a random trap generator in Pyramid 3/60 (appropriately called “It’s a Trap!”). Some of the example traps contained within that article can be found in the volume at hand.

Facts

Author: Jason Levine (a.k.a. PK, @rev_pee_kitty ), Christopher R. Rice (a.k.a. Ghostdancer, @Ravenpenny)
Date of Publication: 17/08/2017 (Kickstarter-backer-exclusive)
Format: PDF-only (at the moment)
Page Count: 26 (1 title page, 1 contents page, 2 pages of ads, no index!)
Price: not yet available, guessing it’s going to be $8.00
Preview: none so far

Review

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page. A book about traps will naturally come down more heavily on the mechanical side, making it meat-focused.

The book looks a lot more like a standard GURPS book than the contents of the DFRPG box. After the short introduction (complete with recommended books, publication history and a few words about the authors), the book is split in two chapters: Traps (13 pages) and Tricks (8 pages). The former deals with bona fide traps or at least immediately dangerous stuff camouflage to avoid detection. The latter has more unconventional surprises in store, only some of which are physically dangerous and none of them are immediate death traps. These are more designed to confuse, mislead or serve as obstacles or puzzles. Note that this differs considerably from the definition given in DF 2 – Dungeons and DFRPG Exploits, which is not ideal, but the new definition makes more sense so I let this one slide. Dangerous stuff and curses are now classed under traps.

Both traps an tricks use the standard Dungeon Fantasy traps notation, but that notation  has changed a bit: instead of “circumvent” we now have “avoid” and instead of “evade” we have “save” (doubtless to help players of that-other-game adapt). Both traps and tricks have several more subheadings from “Alchemy and Gunk” to “Monster Mash” to “Insane Architecture”. Each trap/trick gets a descriptive paragraph and the stat block of. The descriptions are of varying length with the tricks usually being much more elaborate to set up. What’s not in the book is a trap generator à la “It’s a Trap!”, but that is actually not such a bad thing since that strays into advanced game-mastering territory and quite a few traps have hints on how to modify them, anyway.

Meat

Now, the meat of the matter is what dungeon-delvers want to know more about, of course. Here the meat is mainly (but not exclusively) in the stat blocks. Each gives stats to detect, disarm, avoid and save against the trap’s effects, how many shots it has and whether it can be rearmed and stolen (yes, even the 10,000-pound stone sphere has a careful “no” under “steal” lest an intrepid adventurer make off with it). The traps range from the commonplace – deadfalls, pit traps of all sorts, shrinking rooms – to the ingeniously devious – Dehydrating Basin, Imprisment (James Bond-style Laser web with prisms), Projectile-Capturing Field and the insidious Dragon’s Maw Hallway.

I am not giving away the secret design features, but a GM who mixes one or two of the more insidious gems with the more ordinary traps will get a very satisfying result. On the whole there are 44 traps and 20 tricks, but many of these have variants (12 variants of Evil Runes for example and 10 different weapons at different strengths for Weapons Traps – though why the list is missing two weapons only to see them added to the respective traps is a bit strange). The damage range is pretty high, going from as little as 1d-1 to 5d6x4, which is pretty much lethal. Some traps require very quick thinking to avoid losing a party member – Lava Pit and Crush Room I am looking at you! Thankfully, insta-kills are relatively rare and always pointed out within the text.

There are only a few traps that I’d find difficult to set up successfully – Elven Clothesline is only for riders, for example – but the vast majority are generic enough to be used everywhere in a dungeon (or in most wilderness for the few wilderness-oriented traps). Most of the traps make sense even without saying “A Wizard Did It!” it but some strain the suspension of disbelief a bit – if you can’t imagine a bola-throwing mechanism, you’re not alone. There are few of these over-the-top traps though and let’s be frank – traps based on carnival rides aren’t really out-of-place in Dungeon Fantasy. It’s also nice to see how the authors slipped some physics from standard GURPS in here without making thing cumbersome – e.g. gravity and acceleration. Christopher Rice had to point that out to me. I hadn’t really noticed there was a theme.

About a dozen traps are re-used from DF 16: Wilderness Adventures and “It’s a Trap”, but among these are classics like Deadfall and Poisoned Needle, which couldn’t have been left out in any case. The vast majority of the traps are intended for a regular dungeon, though some are multi-purpose and can be used outdoors and indoors. Specific outdoor traps are rare.

There’s only one rule one overall rule that’s completely new: mandatory complementary rolls – used for timing. That works nicely for time-triggered dungeons (sharp pendulums for example) and makes complementary rolls even more useful – a beautiful mechanic I am sure to steal for other things.

There’s not much that’s missing, but I wouldn’t have minded a box on how regular dungeon denizens interact with traps and how they (or multiple traps or traps and architecture) can be combined to make challenging encounters. We get a few hints, but as a DFRPG supplement a big splashy box wouldn’t have been amiss, in my honest opinion. Also, I want Hell Gnome stats, dammit!

Meat score: 8.5 (very good)

Cheese

Good dungeon encounters tell a little story and about half of the traps and most of the tricks presented here do that. Don’t expect some lengthy lead-in with a backstory, but the mechanics themselves usually suggest some mini-plot. Some traps like Gladiator Pit also set up mini encounters that the GM can tailor to specific party members. Of course, these little stories mean that not every trick and trap makes perfect atmospheric sense in every run-off-the-mill dungeon, but there are enough of them that this isn’t usually a problem.

Apart from the lead-ins to each trap/trick, there are a couple of paragraphs or boxes that offer further storytelling aids. Especially helpful is “Puzzling through riddles” that helps you give hints to characters to make a skill roll (most helpful is the most-often useless Poetry skill). There are hints for how to deal with spell-slingers circumventing your trapped room (“Transmute Trap to Joke”) and how to power you dungeon in a semi-realistic way (“Motive Force”). All of these are useful and help the GM build the atmosphere and deal with players taking short-cuts, but, of course, the book can’t be said to be heavy on the fluff side. As mentioned above, a general page on how to integrate monsters and traps wouldn’t have hurt either.

Cheese score: 7 (good)

Sauce

When I said this book looks more like a regular GURPS book, I wasn’t just talking about the contents. As mentioned, it is grey-scale and even though the illustrations (some duplicated from the DFRPG boxed set) are still good, they are far and few between. Nothing wrong with that, but it would certainly have been more interesting to illustrate some of the unique, complex or beautiful traps instead of the deadfall and the net. Yes, I know, it’s a relatively small book that was a kickstarter stretch goal, but looks are quite important for RPG books to sell.

Moving on to positive things, the layout is clear and legible with the trap stat block making it easy to find the relevant stats and the bold-print traits being easy to spot too. I wouldn’t have minded a nice easy indicator for lethality like a number of skulls in the trap titles, though. Right now you have to read the lead-in paragraph or be very good at deciphering effects. Apparently the authors thought about a challenge rating, but decided against it. I would still have liked some quick indicator, no matter how simple.

There’s also more tongue-in-cheek writing again and the “Speaking from Experience” boxes add more character to our two thief commentators than most of those in the DFRPG boxed set. Also, there are the trap names, some of which are straight-forward, but many are extremely punny or alliterative.

Editing is top-notch, meaning I didn’t spot any mistakes or wonky-looking stuff, but there’s no index, even though the book contains two pages of ads. That’s a bit disappointing, even if it’s not a huge problem in a book this length (especially not in a full-text searchable pdf). All the headings in the context page and all the web-links are hyper-linked and the whole pdf is bookmarked – as is standard for digital GURPS books. All in all, still above the industry average, even if it doesn’t look quite as sexy as those Pathfinder supplements.

Sauce score: 6.5 (clearly above average)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Given that this book is about traps for Dungeon Fantasy, it does actually have a lot of use beyond that. Even if some of the traps might be a bit above the top for standard fantasy (e.g. Rotating Room, Imprisment) most of them can be used for anything vaguely Sword and Sorcery. Even the damage level isn’t much of a problem unless you are playing the dregs of society in the Discworld RPG. What’s more, a lot of these rooms can be repurposed with little effort for Cliffhangers campaigns, some Monster Hunter campaigns, and even Space campaigns that deal with ancient precursor civilisations. Basically, everything that isn’t entirely social role-playing or rigidly realistic can profit. Even for ultra-tech Cyberpunk infiltration you might take the stats and just change the flavour text with fast acting poisons becoming nano-goo.

Speaking of generic use, there’s nothing keeping you from using these traps in D&D or some other games, as long as you can improvise rolls for detection, avoidance and saves, which does raise the usefulness a good bit.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7.5 (passes universal test)

Digesting Everything

DF Traps is a step up in complexity from the DFRPG boxed set. GMs who want to full use of it had better have a couple of sessions under their belt. It’s not a huge step, though. Just taking some of the simpler traps as is and putting them in a dungeon isn’t complicated at all. Christopher Rice told me – during a nice chat after I had already written most of the review (thank you Christopher!) – that the guideline for this book had been “don’t make it too complex – if you make it complex, make it easy to pull apart!” I think the authors managed to do that quite well.

The book is intended to complement DFRPG Exploits and it does that well, but even those two together don’t make a complete How to Build GURPS Dungeons – any takers to write that one?

Summary

This book is useful for those who want to drop some traps and weird tricks into their dungeons. It’s also good for templates to modify your traps. It’s definitely useful for newbies, but old hands won’t be bored either. It doesn’t supplant “It’s a Trap”, which offers some more variety and randomness, but it has considerably more ready to use stuff. If you play Dungeon Fantasy (or Fantasy with the occasional dungeon), there are few reasons not to buy this book (except that you can’t get it yet), but I’ve known GMs (and players) who really don’t like traps. In that case, move along!

If, on the other hand, you like what you see here and want to add some extra-nastiness Christopher R. Rice’s “Deathtraps” in the latest Pyramid has got you covered – incidentally David L. Pulver’s “Demihuman Dungeons” in the same issue is a good guide on how to build dungeons made by non-humans. That one is already available at least.

Total score: 7.725 (very good)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (50%), Cheese (15%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “cheesy” story- or world-building-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: pending
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.

Accessibility: still excellent – start with the boxed set, play a couple of games and you’ll be ready to tackle this, old GURPS hands can dive right in


GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

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