Welcome to the Dungeon! – It’s a Trap
Going slightly out of order of what I wrote in the first post about dungeons, but I think this one is useful to talk about early on because it is often a big factor with an ecosystem.
Traps are something that I haven’t used in my game all that often. I don’t use them all that often because they are hard to use. If you use them too often, players are going to start checking for traps every ten feet to avoid them, and that is also if they are too deadly. If they aren’t a threat and you use them rarely, it feels like a gotcha if you end up having a harsh trap in there that could take out of character of that has on-going damage.
But traps are a common part of Dungeons and Dragons. In particular, they are a common part of dungeons. So how do you add them to your game in a way that isn’t going to grind the story to a halt as players search for traps over and over and over again?
Firstly, should traps be deadly? I think the answer to that should be potentially, or at least they should be taxing. A trap that does 2d6 to a 10th level character is nothing, unless you’re the wizard (and you shouldn’t be in front if you’re the wizard). So maybe the trap isn’t deadly, but maybe it gives you a condition, like poisoned that gives you disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks while you are poisoned. That sucks if you can’t take care of it, and if you can take care of it, that’s going to be using up a spellcasters resource, which is taxing on the part as a whole. Or you make them potentially deadly or at least damaging enough that you are again using up resources, such as with a a healer having to heal the rogue if they step in the trap.
But, secondly, this doesn’t deal with the issue of the players checking every ten feet for traps. So what do you do so that it doesn’t bog down the game? There are several solutions that can work, though some of them I like better with others. Let’s talk about the two that I don’t like as well first. You can tell the players that you’ll call for the roll when it’s needed. So they can’t ask for an investigation roll for traps, you’ll just do that when there is going to be a trap. The issue with this is that you have to set-up rules for how this is going to work. It’s going to be a single roll by the character who is in front. The whole party doesn’t get to roll otherwise it bogs everything down too much. Another option is to use their passive perception/investigation. Yes, there is such a thing as passive investigation, but don’t use it. The issue with this method is that you are going to have an idea of what their passive perception/investigation is, so you will know ahead of time which traps are going to hit them.
Finally, and this will lead into using traps in dungeons more so, is my new preferred method. In this method, you are going to describe where a trap is/or what type of trap might be in the hallway. Let me give you some examples. There is a resetting spike trap where spikes come out of the walls. Well, you describe a pile of old bones of someone in plate mail with giant spike holes in the armor. Now the players know there is a trap there, but they don’t know how it’s triggered, they don’t know how much damage it will do, beyond enough to kill that guy some time ago, and they don’t know how to get through. And since there is something that they need to get, they now have to figure out a way to get through and what triggers the trap, then maybe see if they can disarm it. Or, maybe they are in a dungeon in a volcano so there is lava running around. So in one of the hallways they see a partially closed pit trap where a burned skeleton is reaching out, and they see more floor tiles ahead of that color. Now it becomes a challenge for them to get across those spots without falling in. It also means that a lava trap, which would probably be deadly, can be deadly, because a bad roll and a slip onto the title can kill the PC because it isn’t a gotcha surprise.
So I’ve already started, in my preferred method, talking about some of the traps that make sense for a dungeon. But let’s talk about why ecosystems matter with traps. There is a good video that Nerdarchy did on traps (sorry don’t have the link), but in it they talk about a dungeon they had created, might have been a Dwarven dungeon, but now there were Kobolds and Goblins in it. All the traps when triggered released blades or arrows that were above the head height of a Goblin or Kobold, which is why they were able to live there. Or, you could also do that the Goblins and Kobolds were light enough not to trigger the trap. So if you have a gnome rogue, they might not trigger the trap, but the human will. You can see with traps that are triggered in that way, it’s going to make sense to have monsters running throughout. If you put Duergar in there, and they are tall enough to get hit, they would leave, because they couldn’t access more than a little bit of the dungeon. So the traps might determine the ecosystem in the dungeon.
But with that, you also have to consider what traps the original creators of the dungeons would have put in there. If it’s a temple that is protecting a treasure, there is going to be some way for the priests to get down there without triggering all of the traps, so can your players figure out why that might be. Or if it’s a dungeon to keep something trapped inside, it could be that there aren’t many traps that trigger when you head into the dungeon, but coming back out might not have as many monsters to fight, but you’ll be dealing with all of the traps. Also, a wizard is going to have a whole lot more inventive traps than say a noble might because the wizard can just naturally set-up traps that have magical effects, where as a noble is going to have to pay someone if they aren’t/weren’t a magic user themselves, and it might be easier to just go with non-magical traps.
Finally, I think another thing to consider is if you want the traps to reset or not. Some traps are going to be one and done traps that then have to be manually reset, and if there is no one upkeeping them, the adventuring party is going to run across some traps that are already triggered that they won’t have to worry about. Some traps are going to be self resetting and probably magical in nature, even if the trap doesn’t deal magical damage. These the players are going to see the results of the damage, but not what the trap is in particular.
As you can tell, using traps is a tricky proposition, but I think one that is worthwhile. I do like, besides maybe traps that use minor resources, like a little healing or poison the party, being ones that the players can tell are there, and the challenge isn’t if they can spot the trap, but whether or not they can get past it without triggering it, or if they can figure out how to disable it. Those will work better than having a wizard accidentally trigger a trap and dying.
What do you think of traps in a D&D game? Do you use them if you run a game?
Share questions, ideas for articles, or comments with us!