Whether an obvious spike pit or a hidden rune inscribed upon a spring-loaded plate, traps have been and always will be an integral part of every adventure. They’re an exceptional tool in every game master’s arsenal, though not for the reasons you might think. Catching the party unaware as they greedily pursue treasure in an ancient temple of a long dead king can be entertaining, as well as effectively bringing tension to the group. Yet the true worth of a trap is far more expansive.
The True Worth of a Trap
Traps can be exciting challenges that test the party, limit the paths they can safely travel, and encourage exploration. They are excellent for environmental storytelling; for giving exposition to the party without using an NPC, a conspicuous note, or the fabled McGuffin.
Let’s begin with the classic dart trap. A pressure plate on the ground causes a barrage of poisoned barbs to be fired from near imperceptible holes lining the walls of a corridor.
The party enters the temple and bears witness to a mostly empty corridor with several inanimate skeletons on the floor covered with gear. Strange gnomish symbols are engraved on the walls. The floor itself is jagged, segmented and resembles a grate rather than solid floor. The corridor is short and confining, forcing creatures to move slowly and limiting their mobility.
The skeletons, when examined, have small, discolored puncture marks through otherwise unmarred equipment. One skeleton is particularly smaller and less damaged than the others. Gripped in its fingers lies a silver holy symbol, glinting in the lantern light. The party can hear the buzzing of insects nearby and witness a gathering of flies along the roof and corners of this restricting environment.
Here we’ve disclosed several narrative hints as to what the threat is while also providing opportunities for skill checks to gain further insight into the encounter and possibly even the story beyond what is immediately seen. Perhaps an Intelligence (Nature) check identifies the insects as scavengers who pick corpses clean of flesh. A Wisdom (Medicine) check could realize the discoloration is caused by a rare kind of poison. An Intelligence (Investigation) check notices something as simple as these skeletons resting with gear mostly undamaged bar a few small chinks or punctures.
This provides a challenge through multiple factors. If the party can piece together how the trap functions, they must find a way to protect themselves against the darts in such a confined area with limited ability to dodge. They may also need to find a way to resist the poison that causes their muscles to tire and bodies to fall into unconsciousness.
Failure to avoid these poisoned darts is followed by the thudding of their bodies on the ground, which acts as a dinner bell for the insects that reside here, ready to pick them clean. Over time, the darts would fall through the cracks in the ground removing more obvious evidence of what occurred here.
But as with any good challenge, it must be surmountable through wisdom, foresight and perhaps a little good luck. The trap we’ve just discussed may seem daunting but when the party takes the hints provided, they can navigate it in a variety of ways, not all of which are roll dependent.
Investigating the corridor could reveal the pressure plate that triggers the trap, and potentially the complex mechanism behind it. Shining the light through the floor grate, revealing broken darts from previous triggers, giving further insight into the trap’s function. Even examining the gnomish symbols could hint at its mechanical nature and provide a potential lore hint as to its origin.
Emphasizing the corridor limiting their movement may encourage the player-characters to attempt to protect themselves with shields or other objects they found previously in the dungeon; a table, perhaps a log or even a fallen enemy could provide cover from the darts.
The fact that the equipment of these previous adventurers is still in good condition, suggests that they haven’t been here for long which contradicts the idea that these skeletons decayed naturally; if the party realizes what that means, that the insects are a part of the challenge, they could take measures to nullify them. This could lead them to potentially being hit by the darts and suffering the poison but without the insects, the trap isn’t lethal, becoming merely a setback.
The party could even assume that due to the smaller skeleton being less damaged that perhaps whatever the nature of the trap, it’s less dangerous lower to the ground. Perhaps this halfling cleric didn’t fall to the darts but was unable to fend off the insects after their companions succumbed to the poison darts.
It’s a simple trap, yet it can convey so much, and there are many ways to overcome it, yet each solution still involves some level of danger.
Your Trap Tool Box
When building your traps, you have so many tools at your disposal to consider that no two traps ever need to be the same. Here we’ll go over a few tools that you can use and apply to make almost any trap encounter that much more memorable.
The location that your trap lies in is integral to how it will likely be approached or if the party face it at all. Placing a three-foot-wide tripwire in an open field is likely not to see much use, but place that same tripwire in a small crawl space and it’s likely to be a much greater challenge to overcome.
Additionally, the environment can be used to give hints, means to avoid the traps or even ways to possibly use them to the players’ advantage. Place a boulder trap in an old mine shaft and have it come thundering down the mine cart tracks to surprise the party a minute after describing the old, rusted levers that redirect the tracks. If the party are quick enough and possibly strong enough, maybe they can use the levers to redirect the boulder they released. If they do this, perhaps the boulder breaks a wall and reveals a shortcut or some other reward for thinking quickly.
A trap doesn’t need to always be a spring-loaded mechanism or in fact a physical threat at all. It could be a rigged social encounter with phrases designed to trap the party into revealing important facts in front of the wrong people. Or perhaps the trap is a brittle tree supporting a nearby cliff that, with the right amount of force or a change in the weather, could break bringing the cliff crashing down. The environment is the most integral tool to keep in mind when designing a challenge involving traps and should always be considered.
The circumstance in which players encounter a trap heavily impacts how they handle it, or perhaps fail to handle it. A demanding situation in which time is of the essence places importance on the party’s pace and often lessens the attention they give to the details of an encounter. Introducing the trap during another event can improve or worsen the experience depending on how you implement it.
A stressful scenario inside a castle under siege, where the party must find and steal the crown jewels while being assailed by the castle guard, could make that single spear trap protecting the final door that much more dangerous. In these situations the party might still have a chance to notice the trap or at least evidence of it. Something as simple as a few subtle holes near the door noticed with a hasty Wisdom (Perception) check. But will anybody stop to notice? Does disarming the trap mean the party are forced into combat? Is it better to rush ahead recklessly or stay and fight?
Get creative with your scenarios also, as not every trap needs to be on a door or chest. Maybe a bridge suspended over lava has gouts of molten rock showered upon it at roughly timed intervals.
Traps can be used as amazing environmental storytelling devices that can help shape an entire dungeon experience, even drop subtle hints as to the current objective, or more. Building the trap into the environment and making it feel real and make sense is important.
Why is there a trap here? If it’s a mechanism, who would’ve invested time in placing it and exactly how did it come to be? Does it bear sigils and the craftsmanship of a foreign gnomish trading company or is it scrap built by goblins who used only the measly materials available to them? Was it placed here to defend something? Was it intended to maim invaders or to simply act as an alarm for those who set it up?
The story behind why a trap is here and how it came to be is important and should be considered when placing a trap within your adventures.
These are often the features of a trap, the crux of the mechanical challenge and the punishment for failing it. These consequences need not always be damage though and perhaps the true cost isn’t immediately obvious or isn’t even part of the designed trap itself.
For example, a spear trap may not be incredibly harsh for failing the check to find it and being struck by it. You may take a single d8 of piercing damage but now the thick stone spear is jutting against the wall. Immediately this may not seem like much of an issue, but when you’re fleeing this collapsing dungeon and your escape is blocked by this spear, you might realize the true consequence of your failure.
Remember, the more serious the trap, the more effort you should put into its discovery and hints towards it. It’s never fun to open a door only to have eight sets of explosive runes immediately trigger to reduce your character to less than ash. It’s meant to be a challenge, not a rude surprise, as strange as that may sound. Your players will appreciate your consideration.
Traps are contraptions built of multiple parts. Whether they’re made of string and a sharp stick or nine hundred and forty-three thousand tiny moving gears, you should consider just what makes your trap tick.
The mechanical knowledge of how your trap works will better aid you when your party starts inadvertently trying random things. You’ll know that the evocation runes that hold together the magic are unstable, so maybe hitting the trap hard enough could have explosive results. Having an idea of how the trap functions is preferred to needing to ponder it in the moment and making a call you may later regret.
When building your trap, consider who created it and how. A trap crafted by dwarven smiths over centuries may be sturdier and resistant to magical intervention yet easier for a dwarven trap-smith to disarm or jam. Inversely a volatile rune woven by mages might be easier for a Sorcerer to unbind than a Rogue with their thieves’ tools.
Having a reason for the trap to exist is important, and not just an in-world reason, but why you as a GM have placed it. What do you want it to accomplish? Do you want it to put the players on edge during their dungeon exploration? Or do you wish to make them more mindful of their surroundings during combat?
It’s important that you don’t simply throw trap after trap at a party with little purpose other than to deal damage. Doing so detracts from the value of traps. It makes them more of a frustration than a memorable part of an encounter or challenge.
Place them sparingly, otherwise your party will spend hours suspiciously checking every little alcove. You don’t want the mimic paranoia to set in and for the party to insist upon rolling an Intelligence (Investigation) check for each and every door, container and room they enter… and trust me… they will.
Ultimately it is up to you how you will use your traps, after all, you know your group and what kind of game suits your table. Not every trap has to be a masterpiece but give them the same thought and consideration that you’d give an enemy within a combat encounter.
I hope that these points will help you to appreciate traps just as much if not more so than other encounters, rather than the throwaway damage dice that they can so often be reduced to.