I swear, I’ve started writing this post three or four times and changed the name at least twice. What I’m trying to talk about is the idea of an “acceptable loss” in the game, and how to balance that with rewards. I keep getting wrapped up in how and why I got on the topic, but I should really just write about the topic. Huh-duh.

So, I had a number of complaints from my players about how the combat was too difficult. I tried to think of other ways to make the game difficult without making it impossible, right? I started looking a traps and hazards — two elements I don’t like using ’cause they tend to require the players to not notice them.

See, a straight-up fight is something I’m fine with, since the players need to sort out the danger and everyone gets to participate. When you play the “trap” mini-game, only the Rogue gets to play. And when you play the “hazard” mini-game, only the Ranger or “resident terrain expert” gets to play.

A lot of traps rely on “not being seen” by the players, and anyone trained in Perception or whatever passes as the “trap detection” skill, can easily bypass a trap without its basic function being of any use. It’s binary and boring. It’s a “win” button. It just gets more tedious when coupled with the “disable” skill.

What you wind up with then is double jeopardy — if you don’t have trap detection, it sucks to be you! If you have trap detection but not trap disarmament, it sucks to be you! It almost makes more sense to make each trap be just one or the other.

Hazards are just as bad. “Oh,” you say, “I didn’t know about convection. You mean wandering around this active volcano is going to deal continuous fire damage? I’m a Ranger/Druid/Vulcanologist, shouldn’t I know about that?”

So, what do you do then? I guess what you’d need to do is use traps and hazards often enough that they’re seen as a kind of acceptable loss to the players, and make sure they’re either “detection” traps or disarm-able traps, so you don’t get too deep into the double-jeopardy shenanigans.

There’s probably a golden ratio of risk to reward that needs to be struck as well. I remember something in the 3e Dungeon Master’s Guide about each encounter sapping a quarter of the party’s daily resources. I don’t know how reasonable that is in practice, but it seems like a place to start.