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) and 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 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 an interesting environment (oh who am I kidding, that's definitely a big part of the charm), but rather because of how you get out.
You can't fight your way out, zap your way out or 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 gaming style and technique. I learned 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 Skywalker 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 would be there, logically. 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 one or twice a day, to compress any garbage or debris tossed into one of the connecting shoots.
The room is magnetically shielded to protect it in case some of the materials thrown into the Compactor were hazardous, or explosive. Also, it causes any small bits of metal to stay where they are instead of clogging the drainage system. What drainage? Give me a sec...
The chamber is inhabited by a squid like alien that probably feeds off bits of garbage and any vermin that gets on the station. Maybe it was put in there on purpose to get rid of space rats and Mynocks and such.
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 completely, which also gives the creature a medium to move around in. When the walls close, it ducks down into this man-made, underwater alcove and waits for the walls to pass back overhead away from each other.
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 or 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 out 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, the magnetic shielding eliminated, you could probably jury rig the door or just blast it open.
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".
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 only one thing 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.