ASH: Derek Radner's Private Journal #6 - Deathtraps
Dave Van Domelen
dvandom at eyrie.org
Fri Jul 9 14:15:33 PDT 2010
[Private Journal of Derek Radner - November 20, 2017]
In popular media, but a little less so in actual practice, the deathtrap
is one of the signature melodramatic tools of the supervillain. But,
thinking about all the things that get called deathtraps, it feels like
there's more than one kind of thing there. A slowly dropping ceiling in an
ancient temple is a lot different in design and purpose from one of Doctor
Developer's creations, but both are called deathtraps.
What do they have in common?
- Death. A deathtrap needs to be able to kill its victim, at least in
theory. Obviously, a deathtrap intended for normals may only annoy a super,
but that doesn't mean it's not a deathtrap.
- Trappiness. A trap pretty much runs itself once triggered. It might
involve a computer brain or animals or something, but it can't require active
intervention by its creator in order to finish off its victim.
Okay, but there's stuff that meets both of those without being a
deathtrap. I mean, if the victim barely has time to think, "What was that
click?" before the anti-tank mine reduces them to a red mist, it's not really
a deathtrap, is it?
So, to be a deathtrap, the victim needs time to realize they're IN a
deathtrap. This might be by design, or it might be an unavoidable side
effect of the method of killing. Resettable stone traps run by waterwheels
tend to be on the slow side, after all.
Because of the Horrible Moment Of Realization that they allow, all
deathtraps are puzzles, whether by intent or by accident. If you give your
victim a chance to react, then they might figure out how to avoid their
So. Deathtraps are deadly, trappy, and give the victim time to try to
escape their doom. That covers a pretty wide swath, though, and looking back
at historical deathtraps over the ages, I think it's useful to split
deathtraps into two genuses. Genera?
(Note in margin: If I ever go back in time to ancient Rome, find people
in charge of Latin grammar and put them in deathtraps.)
Genus 1: Defensive, or passive deathtraps.
Genus 2: Offensive, or active deathtraps.
Defensive deathtraps are part of an installation's defenses. A way to
kill, or at least discourage, anyone trying to get in. Most modern defenses
would fall into the booby trap category, since they're out to just kill with
maximum efficiency (or they're nonlethal to begin with). But a lot of
ancient tombs and temples have water-driven or lever-driven traps that are
just slow enough to count as deathtraps instead. And, of course, if you'd
rather drive away uninvited guests but don't mind killing them, a modern
deathtrap might be useful. Especially if escaping the trap requires getting
out of your installation rather than further in.
Ancient deathtraps would like to be booby traps, but they're lucky to
still be working, I guess. The ones that do work probably have some magic
clinging to them.
Defensive deathtraps are set up in place, and activate whenever someone
goes into the wrong place and does the wrong thing. They must be automatic,
though, at most using a simple computer brain to run them. If someone has to
monitor their operation and make sure they work, they're not deathtraps
While a bit overwrought and possibly inefficient, defensive deathtraps
at least don't really require asking "what the hell were you thinking?"
Instant kill traps that will reset themselves are hard to make and often
require materials that the government keeps a close eye on. But anyone with
some skills and materials from a home supply store can rig a corridor to seal
and then flood with water. While the same trigger system could release nerve
toxins or fire laser beams at the victim, a villain on a budget might want to
spend that money on things that they keep on their person, rather than stuff
in a base that they could be forced to abandon on short notice.
Okay, these are the ones that get mocked. A LOT. And not without good
An offensive deathtrap is where you get the drop on your victim, but
instead of just putting a sufficiently large gun against their head and
pulling the trigger, you put them in a deathtrap. Just about every list
you'll ever find of "stupid supervillain mistakes" includes some variation of
"He put his enemy in a deathtrap instead of just killing him." Most of the
stupider examples are probably apocryphal or outright fictional, parodies of
real supervillains. But it's indisputable that heroes really do end up in
offensive deathtraps once in a while. There's even a class at the Academy
for dealing with it!
So, why the hell would any villain put his enemy in a deathtrap rather
than just killing him? It's bothered me for a while..."because deathtraps
are cool" only gets you so far, after all. And villains solely motivated by
the cool factor tend to self-destruct pretty quickly unless their powers
revolve around coolness.
Here's a few species of offensive deathtraps I've thought of. There's
gonna be some overlap, though.
(underlined)Deathtraps Are Cool
Okay, some villains just like deathtraps too much, and will use 'em even
if they know it's stupid. They might not even really want their enemies
dead...Doctor Developer seems to fall into that category...they just like
deathtraps for their own sake. Whatever floats your boat (before sinking it
in alligator-infested waters), I guess.
If this is the motivation for the offensive deathtrap, there's probably
going to be a sense of twisted fair play involved. Either the designer
builds in a way out, or he has faith in his target's ability to figure one
(underlined)Insufficiently Large Gun
Sometimes, you can overwhelm and capture your enemy but just shooting
them won't kill them. Invulnerability powers often work best around vital
spots, so you could bruise and batter your opponent, maybe even break their
limbs, but a bullet to the head always bounces off. So a deathtrap might
simply be part of a series of attempts to find what WILL kill him or her.
While not trying to be fair like "it's cool" deathtraps, these tend to
be pretty easy to escape simply because the designer doesn't know for sure
HOW to kill the victim yet.
Killing the guy might have its plus side, but what the trap is really
meant to do is mess with their head somehow. Let them know you COULD have
killed them outright, but you don't take them seriously enough and would
rather just toy with them. Especially effective if the deathtrap triggers on
the victim's phobias somehow, like putting a claustrophobic in a the classic
"dropping ceiling" trap, or suspending someone over a pit full of spiders or
snakes or spider-snake crossbreed mutants.
A designer of this sort of trap probably wants the victim to survive,
but won't shed a tear if the guy botches and ends up devoured by spider-
(underlined)But Will You Stop Me, Or Save HER?
The person in the deathtrap isn't the one you're after, it's just
someone important to your enemy. Or maybe a random target of opportunity
that it was easy to put in the trap. Like PsyOps, the goal is to mess with
someone else's head. In this case, the puzzle aspect of the trap is probably
not solvable by the person in the trap...some deathtraps play fair, but these
can't. Because the only real solution is for outside help to come, and that
help will require enough time and effort that you're free to do something
else in the meantime.
I dunno if these really count as deathtraps, but I suppose they look
that way from the victim's point of view. An accidental offensive deathtrap
is meant to be "disposing of the body", only the body isn't dead yet. You
think you killed your enemy, and either want to destroy the body entirely or
make it look like they died in some other way that doesn't lead back to you,
such as accidentally falling into the back of a garbage truck after
accidentally stabbing themselves fifty times. Or, less silly, put your
victim in a car and run it off the side of the Pacific Highway or something,
so that the fiery crash eliminates evidence of the real cause of death.
In any case, the not-so-dead victim wakes up in time to realize that
they will be so-dead pretty soon if they don't escape the deathtrap.
Deathtraps are pretty cool. But they're definitely a luxury. Booby
traps work better than defensive deathtraps, and if I want someone dead I'd
probably be better off just building a sufficiently big gun and killing them
while they're helpless. Only use a deathtrap if style is more important than
actually killing 'em.
All Deathtraps - Automatic, potentially lethal, slow enough that the
victim sees it coming.
Defensive - Slow because of physical constraints, Slow as part of
Offensive - Cool Factor, Testing to Destruction, PsyOps, Stop Me Or Save
This has been a Conclave of Super-Villains Special:
( ) Derek Radner's Private Journal ( )
I An Academy of Super-Heroes Universe Comic I
I copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen I
#6 - Deathtraps
Inspired by High Concept Challenge #10, although this will only be my
official entry if I don't get another idea I had worked out. But I figured
this taxonomy-style piece might help other writers come up with ideas for the
challenge, so I posted it as soon as I'd worked out the ideas in my head.
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