Many dungeon masters use traps but only a few use good traps in D&D. Traps are notoriously used in a horrible manner. Today we are going to change that.
Using good traps in D&D requires you to make traps an event instead of a penalty. Good traps should always serve a purpose other than damage.
This may seem completely against your experience with traps but traps need to be more than just a damage drain. If you want to learn how to make excellent traps that actually make people interested, this is the article for you!
Serving a purpose
“The party approaches a hideout and readies themselves. The warrior goes first and then has to make a reflex save. He fails as a gargoyle unleashes a lightning bolt from it’s mouth.”
Did that trap serve a purpose? I want you to think about it for a second and give an answer.
If your answer is no, then I fooled you! This trap has a purpose in setting the scene for the group. I would not make the lightning bolt do typical damage, but instead be a mere 1d10 or something.
The point of this trap is to get make the party wary of the area. If they are going into a rogue’s hideout then they need to be on their toes. If this areas is supposed to be dangerous the scene is set.
What if this trap just appeared in the middle of a dungeon that has a bunch of goblins in it?
If the trap appeared then it is definitely out of place. Why do goblins have a trap that shoots lightning? More importantly what purpose did it serve?
If the trap leads the players to find out that this place is a previous residence for a mage, then great! But how often does the narrative tie in that perfectly because of a trap?
Most traps do not have a purpose or fit into the narrative of the place they are in. This is unfortunate since it makes traps become a cheap nuisance for players.
As a cheap nuisance traps generally just drain player’s resources.
Old school trap purposes
The first time a player encounters traps is primarily becuase the dungeon master is trying to drain the player’s resources.
Some have equated Dungeons and Dragons to a resource game. How many spells, heals, potions, hp, etc do you have left? A badly designed dungeon is meant to drain these resources and force the players to fight at a disadvantage.
If the players fight the big bad at full everything they should do extremely well, but if they are just barely scraping by the fight will be intense! This is the trap that most dungeons and dungeon masters fall into.
A fight should never be based around slowly draining the player’s resources!
This is the purpose of many old school traps: To drain the player’s resources. This is a terrible way to play and quite boring.
Slowly being hit for a little bit here and there is absolutely horrible, and it feels cheap.
Traps feel cheap this way because they are. If a dungeon master really wanted to make a party have little resources left they could make an immense amount of traps before the boss. I have seen this happen and it is just annoying.
Don’t use traps to drain players or make them fit into your mold. Instead, use traps an event.
“The players open the door and only find a chest in a barren room.”
Everyone knows something is up. The whole situation is tense, and the players don’t know if it is an illusion, mimic, or just trapped.
If it is an illusion then the players have to uncover the reality of the situation before progressing. If it is a mimic kill it with fire and arrows. Lastly, if the chest is trapped make it intense.
Have you ever heard of multilayered traps? Let me give an example with the chest.
There are two pressure plates. One releases an arrow and one collapses the roof. After that, the chest has a poisoned lock with poison coating the lock to harm any lock picking attempts. The lock has a poison needle, and the chest has more traps.
When opened the chest releases a poison gas and has a tripwire dug into the gold pieces that are inside the chest. Any gold being taken out sets off a fireball. Lastly, the chest is set to explode if enough weight is taken from a chest.
This chest is obviously trapped beyond all hell and I have had players go through this exact trap. Surprisingly, they only laughed and were not angry.
Why do you think the players were not livid with such an insane amount of traps?
When you are going to make people go through traps like I did in the previous section with the chest, you need to make it obvious. Bad traps in D&D are always cheap and just deal damage.
Good traps in D&D force the players to creatively solve a problem.
The players were not blindsided by the 7 traps. They didn’t know that there were 7 traps, but they knew that something was up.
You want most traps to be obvious to avoid that feeling of being cheated. No one likes it when random non preventable damage is done.
As a dungeon master you need to make players not feel like you are cheating them. Instead, make your players deal with traps like an encounter. Give them some information to go off of and then solve it.
Just like a puzzle. Speaking of puzzles.
First, if you are interested about how to properly make a puzzle I highly recommend this puzzle article. It will teach you how to craft an amazing puzzle.
Puzzles have three outcomes.
1. The party solves it and good things happen.
2. The party doesn’t solve it and can’t progress unless the dungeon master/party does something.
3. A bad outcome happens.
A trap puzzle does not involve outcome number three. A trap puzzle only involves good or bad.
Trap puzzles are a variation of puzzles, but these are better uses of traps than we normally see.
The players’ know that they have to do something and are forced to do so. If the thing is not done something bad will happen.
Does this sound familiar?
The players with the chest knew that they had to do something or a bad outcome will happen.
This is the core for most traps and it can be applied to many different scenarios.
Good traps in D&D don’t need to always be telegraphed like the chest scenario. Some traps are environmentally based to let others handle the trap instead of just a rogue.
I will give you an example.
The first example deals with me controlling a group of adventurers in the old school Tomb of Horrors. In the old school version there were no random encounters and it was just traps.
The whole place had been trapped. Every room, every door, every item, everything. This caused me to get creative when I learned that no monsters were chasing me. I made every member of my party levitate as a precaution since the ground at one point was a problem and that saved me.
I entered a room and the floor collapsed into a pool of lava! Instant kill and absolutely terrible for most groups, but I had levitate on everyone. My party pushed past the walls and were completely safe because I paid attention to the environment.
Now this is an extremely cheap example and I do not recommend a solution or die trap, but using the environment you are able to make some crazy traps that live on in memory.
But why would you use these traps anyway?
Traps used to set the scene
Good traps in D&D can be used to set a scene. A great way to set a scene for what your dungeon will be like is displayed in this video.
It may not be my video, but he set the scene to his dungeon perfectly. The dungeon master did not want to make the players overthink things in the dungeon or they would be there forever (since it seemed like it would be a puzzle dungeon.
Instead, he told them to not overthink things and just have fun in the dungeon. This works if the setting fits the setup.
I once gave my players’ a choice. Do you want to fight a fighter that is a giant, a wizard, or a rogue? The party went with the rogue.
This rogue was a manifestation of ‘the guardians’ that belonged to the island. This means that the manifestation didn’t need to sleep or slow down and instead just kept setting traps.
The players were able to pick up some tracks and then followed them to a swampy area.
Once the players arrived, they triggered an alarm that brought alligators to them. The scene has been set that this rogue is crafty and able to pull off some crazy things with traps that don’t just involve straight damage.
Once the players finished off the alligators, they saw a house in the distance. The players saw that the door was ajar and that the windows were closed. The players decided to go in through the windows and played into the rogue’s trap.
Once a player went inside they stepped on a pressure plate that made a dart shoot out from the side of the house.
This gave the players information that the rogue could con them. The players then on were paranoid about everything. They were extra careful and tried to out-think themselves which was hilarious.
All this led to prepare the party for the final fight with the rouge. She was in a giant room full of barrels and shot them from behind a barrel while hiding and moving.
The players realized quickly that some barrels were rigged with explosives, and one rogue who was the same level as a group of adventurer’s almost killed everyone.
The battle was intense, but the scene was set from previous traps. The players knew what to expect since every hint, every detail, led up to them fighting this rogue in the same manner.
It was epic, and I am glad that good traps in D&D were used to set the scene so perfectly.
Traps and monsters
Your monsters know where the traps are right? Why not use that knowledge!
Good traps in D&D can be traps that are used in a fight.
Imagine that you have a creature who heals when they are in fire. What if that creature is set up in a room with a fireball trap? Not only do the players get hurt but the monster gets healed.
If you don’t want to heal the monster, you can have the monster just be immune to a certain type of damage.
A fireball or lightning bolt trap will be a big deal regardless, so why not have your monster’s just set off these traps to harm the party and not take any damage themselves?
I get it though, you might not have monsters that are immune to a certain type of damage. In that case, why not lure the players into a trapped area with your monsters?
The monster’s know where the traps are and can avoid them, or know a great escape route.
Have the players be lured into a death room where they have to use their wits to survive. This makes the traps feel more active and engaging than just a cheap unforeseeable one and done.
The players had to follow that monster and are at fault for their foolishness, now they must survive.
But what about different types of traps that your monsters can use?
The best traps are those that do not deal any actual damage. That is right! The best traps are those that do not deal any damage.
How devastating is it to separate half of the party when a portcullis comes down and separates the fighters from the casters.
Now you can have the ranged people engage in a melee confrontation while the fighters must fend off archers who are in a higher positioned area.
This allows the players to adjust and solve the problem, but it is still a huge deal that carries more weight than 11 pts of damage.
On the opposite spectrum, you can instead of separating the party forces them into one area. Whenever a person is forced into a corner, those who created the trap have an ace up their sleeves. They expect the party to fight back, and these cretins think that they can defeat the party.
Tensions are raised, and the party has to think quickly.
We have just talked about separating players or making them go where we want, but what about a timer?
What if the party was lured by a goblin into a room that is slowly being filled with gas from his brethren? Now the party has to figure out how to escape or die.
Even though the party is trapped, once again they are able to circumvent the situation. Perhaps the party forces through a door, teleport, or does something else.
These traps are meant to make your players think creatively.
Any good trap in D&D should be able to be circumvented.
your players shouldn’t only need to roll a check in order to bypass the trap. Think, if your players fail a roll and you have a deadly trap ahead what happens? The whole party dies?
This is where you have to allow players to come up with their own creative solutions. Stopping an arrow trap could be as simple as holding a shield in front of a hole and then triggering the trap.
The trap might be broken, but it is disabled.
Player creativity should never be discounted. If players are able to stop your traps without rolling, but interacting your game will become much better.
When players treat every trap like an event they become more competent and increase their player skill. This will transition over to other things like combat, roleplay, everything!
Train your players to make creative solutions if they have started to do so.
I am not going to go into tables for making or creating traps, but I will give you some information.
If you want a lazy man’s random trap table look here.
If you want to look at the DMG section for traps look here.
Xanathar’s guide to everything has a few more tables if you are looking for stating traps, but this article is concerned about creating the best possible situation for traps.
Good traps in D&D are not just tools to whittle down player resources. Good traps in D&D are meant to add something to the experience.
Traps can be an event, puzzle, environment or even set a scene. Traps should most of the time be obvious and cause the players to think about how to circumvent the trap.
Most traps are done poorly, but I hope that I was able to give you a few ideas on how to make your traps truly come alive.
If you are wondering how to make a great dungeon without traps I highly recommend reading this article. It will help you create better dungeons for your players.
If you want to learn about players and how they can use traps, watch this video.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!