Monday, January 13, 2014

Trash Compactor

I had this idea for a post and while I was thinking about how best to turn my thoughts into words on a screen, I started thinking about all those great times I spent running the Star Wars RPG by West End Games. There were a lot. A lot of a lot.

Then I started thinking about the Trash Compactor.

This is the result...

Anytime I run a puzzle, deathtrap, or simply an encounter with perilous terrain, I look to the lessons I learned from the Trash Compactor scene in Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope.

As physical traps that provide a mental challenge go you really can't beat the deadly elegance of the Trash Compactor. Here is an enclosed space you fall into (as a way of avoiding a different dangerous situation), you can't blast your way out of (magnetically sealed, the rooms walls, ceiling and door deflect blaster fire), which comes with it's own hidden monster (the Dianoga or Garbage Squid), and if all that fails to kill you the walls close in to crush you flatter than a pancake.

This is my kind of physical trap; not because it's simple, brutal, and sets up an interesting environment (oh who am I kidding, that's definitely a big part of the charm) but because of how you get out.

You can't fight your way out, zap your way out, or really avoid it. While I suppose you could do the last option, you often don't know you're in hot water until you've tumbled in and started boiling.

This trap is awesome because it will physically kill the characters but it takes brains to get out of it.

"Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!"

In the film, Luke Skywalker remembers that his robot companions, C-3PO and R2-D2, are in a control room and that he has a communicator to reach them. Thinking fast and knowing their capabilities, or at least R2's, Luke has the two droids shut down the Garbage Compactors on the Detention Level from which he and his companions attempted to rescue Princess Leia.

Good thinking and a great example of making 'Split the Party' work. I can't tell you how influential this scene was in the development of my personal gaming style and technique. I created my motto of 'DO Split the Party' from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Comic Books. Have the people good at X do X, while the people good at Y do Y. Have them plan to meet at Z.

This isn't the only thing I learned. I also learned that there is almost always more than one way out of a trap. Having watched the film dozens upon dozens upon dozens of times now, I realize there are several ways out of this trap. Most of them much more challenging than the approach Luke took. He totally lucked out by having his allies in the right place at the right time. No doubt The Force was with him. Always.

"No, shut them all down. Hurry!"

In order to understand how I think of and use traps and similar challenges, let's look at the scene from a GM point of view. You've decided that if the players can't figure a way out of the detention center, they may try to escape through a vent or some similar shaft. A maintenance shaft maybe. Possible. What else could logically be there. A bathroom/head? A laundry room? Maybe. A laundry chute? Wait! A garbage chute. Cool. Mention a chute or hatch and have them tumble into a Trash Compactor.

Now what do we know about the Trash Compactor?

The walls close in at regular intervals, maybe once or twice a day, to compress any garbage or debris tossed into one of the connecting chutes.

The room is magnetically shielded to protect it in case some of the materials thrown into the Compactor were hazardous or explosive. Also, this could cause small bits of metal to stay where they are instead of clogging the drainage system. What drainage system? Give me a sec...

The chamber is inhabited by a squid like alien that probably feeds off bits of organic garbage and any vermin that get on the station. Maybe it was put in there on purpose to get rid of space rats, Mynocks, and similar pests.

How does this beastie not die each time the Compactor compacts? Simple. It has made a nest of select debris in the mouth of a drainage pipe. The nest prevents the liquid in the room from draining away completely, which also gives the creature a medium to move around in. When the walls close in, the creature ducks down into this man-made, underwater alcove and waits for the walls to pass back overhead and away from each other once more.

Speaking of the walls, how high are they? The PCs (say, a Farm Boy/Jedi Apprentice, a Smuggler, his Wookiee Companion, and a Princess) slid down a chute into the room from above through a wall compartment. Is it possible there is space above the walls? Could you climb above them to avoid being crushed? For that matter, could someone with a grappling hook get back out by climbing up to the hatch they came in after waiting out the crushing process?

Finally, I always noticed that there is a door to the Trash Compactor. Maintenance personnel or droids may need to go inside once in a while to remove the flattened refuse and scrap metal. If the door was de-magnetized, that is if the magnetic shielding is eliminated, you could probably jury rig the door or just blast it open. It also means you could open it from outside the trap (there's that 'Split the Party' thing again). 

By understanding the trap, you understand how to defeat it.

Using this method, I am not waiting for my PCs to guess the right course of action but rather any course of action that solves one of the traps' conundrums.

I can, right now, think of about seven ways to escape the Trash Compactor other than the way they did it in the movie. That means that if my players came up with, "Hey! Can we see if R2 can plug into the station's computer again? If so, we can just tell the droids to shut the system done. Don't worry about which one we're in yet, just shut down all the Trash Compactors on the detention level", I would blink, think a moment, and say, "Well what do you know? I hadn't thought of that. Sure, that'll work. R2 just has to make a computer roll. Sharp thinking there".

How else could they have escaped? Well, here's some ways I've seen PCs escape a Trash Compactor over the past 35+ years...

  • Climbing and a Grapnel Gun used to get back up to another chute above the compactor.
  • Demolitions and a charge blow out the Nest/Drain cover. Fall down the drainage pipe.
  • Use a Jawa Ionization Rifle to de-magnetize the room's shielding. Open the door by splicing.

That's it in a nutshell. The Play on Target podcast talked a bit about this in their How To Be A Better GM episode, saying that when they were younger a few of them would stop a game cold if the players couldn't come up with the one, true answer to the riddle or puzzle/trap. As an alternative, it is suggested that if the players suggest an answer, you simply make one of their suggestions the right one.

My way is in between and hopefully the best of both worlds. It's not that there is only one thing that works or that anything will work. It's coming up with something, whatever it is, that takes the trap's parameters into account.

Thanks for reading...and I don't care what you smell.

Barking Alien


  1. I like traps that you have to think your way out of, but it can be pushed too far if you're not careful.

    Great post by the way!

  2. Thanks!

    Pushed to far? Hmmm. Do expand on that if you would. I'd be curious as to your opinions on the subject.

  3. Reminds me of advice I think was in DC Heroes re: death traps. You don't even need to think of a solution because the players will surely think of a dozen. GM just needs to decide which one is reasonable. At least that has always worked for me.

    1. Very elegantly put Matt. Simple and sure fire every time. Practically. You could end up with unreasonable players.

  4. While I love traps there are some things that are important to keep in mind (especially with time sensitive traps) and these apply to riddles as well.

    1. Coming up with solutions can be easy, assuming you have enough information. The big problem I see and encounter with traps/riddles is that communicating that information and the players understanding that information is not always done well. GMs need to be very specific and very careful to give the players the information they need to act. GMs need to be VERY careful not to make assumptions about what is obvious.

    2. What happens when players either don't perform well under time constraints or are not as smart as their characters? How do we handle the PC who might be a genius wizard or super smart sleuth but the player is just your average person? Obviously the PC should be able to figure things out the player can't so we need a way to account for that and should keep that in mind when planning or handling the trap.

    1. 1. Coming up with solutions can be easy...for some. Even with ample information provided, some people just aren't that skilled at thinking on their feet. It happens. Provided a modicum of data, I can spew out a dozen ideas or more. Not everyone is like that.

      With this in mind, I find being more specific and giving out too much information, HURTS the players as it lends itself toward making them think there is but one answer that they have to get right. Vague or at the really least general information is better for me for several reasons. Chief among them the fact that it's a trap, often in a place they've never been, constructed by either unknown or vastly skill parties. Unless they were tipped off ahead of time, the PCs shouldn't know more about the trap than what they see, hear, feel, taste and in the case of the Garbage Compactor, smell.

      Another reason to keep some parts vague is so the players can add the details. In one particular acid pool/pit trap I used with my Sunday students, a student noticed the illustration, a top down view, didn't indicate what the ceiling was like, and though I mentioned it was a high ceiling cave, he was curious if there were still stalactites hanging down as their had been in a previous large cave. He noted the presence of water and made the argument that there should be.

      And there was! Now. ;)

      2. A genius wizard or super smart sleuth could still be bad at riddles, though the latter would pick up on clues more easily and would therefore be given more clues than another character. At the same time, I never like games that disconnect the intellect of the character and the player, such as D&D.

      I much prefer (Wow, what a coincidence!) Star Wars D6, which had a Knowledge stat, a Perception stat and a Technical stat to reflect the things a person living in the Star Wars universe would know, a character would perceive and gear he/she/it would be familiar with.

      To penalize an intelligent player by having them play a dumb character (unless that is their choice) is as silly as expecting a slower thinking player to play a smart character. In the second situation it is the GM who has to do all the work. That player isn't going to want to or be able to riddle it out but if they expect to just roll some dice and get the answer they probably shouldn't be sitting at my table. I don't do things that way.

    2. I don't think players should have more information than is reasonable based off of their actions (like not knowing the doors and walls are magnetically sealed until you try and blast your way out). I just think that what information is available should be clear. Knowing that the locked door is an iron bound oak door versus a bunch of pine planks nailed together is important when trying to break out of a room. I have played in way too many games where what the DM sees in his head is not what the players see in their heads and this leads to confusion.

      As for player versus character intelligence and cunning, while I don't think players should be able to just roll some dice and get the answer, I do think the players should be able to leverage their character's greater attributes and get some hints or additional information. That's the primary reason I either use a system with skills in it (like D6 games) or add some ability check to provide that. If my characters are only ever as smart as I am or only have as good a memory as me, then why bother having mental stats at all?

      I guess the point I was trying to make is that DMs should keep in mind the difference between the players and their characters and give them some way to leverage the differences.

    3. "If my characters are only ever as smart as I am or only have as good a memory as me, then why bother having mental stats at all?"

      Why indeed?

      As in my example, Star Wars uses Knowledge (what your character knows), Perception (what your character perceives) and Technical (technology your character is familiar with) but doesn't actually have an Intelligence or Wisdom stat. Those are up to you, the player, to provide.

  5. That's what RAPS are for in DC Heroes.

    1. Hmmm, I've a little rusty on my DC Heroes (been a while), but wasn't 'RAPS' the term for number of successes on a roll? I don't get how it relates exactly.

    2. Rather than the player having to deduce something, he could roll his applicable skill vs. the Opposing Value and get RAPS. For instance, using Detective and getting 1 RAP yields minimal information, more info for more RAPS. Thus the character can solve things the player may not be able to. Helps when you're playing Batman or some such. You could do the same with Gadgetry or whatever, or just use Intelligence if nothing applies, for traps if the player hits a wall in his thinking.

  6. I like this approach to traps. I've only had one opportunity to run something similar. Closest we came was an alien T-rex cornering the PCs in a quicksand pit. The solution was a bit fudged, but it worked storywise. I'm hoping I can get more practice in!