When I first started running Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) I tended to treat traps as an exercise in dice rolling to overcome the challenge I had placed before my players. There was the roll to detect the trap and then another roll to disarm it. All this rolling tended to make for rather dull gameplay.
In an effort to remedy all this tedium I started looking for more complex traps, such as those found in Grimtooth’s Traps, and began to describe them to my players in detail. We still rolled to determine the chance of success but by actually describing the traps it made them exciting in the game and players spent time discussing how to conquer the challenge the trap presented.
I got so wrapped up in the process that I started neglecting the traditional, banal traps: arrow, pit, door, and poison traps were all too mundane. This neglect resulted in me falling back into the old habit of rolling to overcome. I was dissatisfied with this aspect of my Game Mastering but then Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D 4e) was announced.
D&D 4e encouraged solving traps by rolling to overcome them so that the game could help mitigate Game Master (GM) manipulation. GM manipulation was, or so Wizards of the Coast’s marketing of D&D 4e told us all, a major problem for the hobby. The way I understood things, at the time Wizards of the Coast was arguing that GMs were circumventing the core mechanisms of the game by creating situations the required judgement by the GM rather than resolution by the dice. Now I was certainly guilty of this charge at the time, and still am today, but I wanted to give the new system a chance and whole heartedly adopted the approach that D&D 4e advocated by going back to where traps were resolved wholly with dice.
This approach left something to be desired, but what really pushed it over the edge for me was when I discovered Sersa Victory’s Fourthcore website (sadly no longer in existence). Here was a place that advocated for complex challenges where the players not only had to conquer some physical confrontation (such as an assault by a group of orks) but also had to defuse a trap before it went off and killed them all. It took the idea of rolling to resolve the trap situation and made it an exciting challenge for everyone involved and I absolutely loved it – though I was rarely able to pull it off as well as I would have liked.
When Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D 5e) came along I was already using these complex situations when running my dungeons but D&D 5e encouraged a different style of gameplay by encouraging players to overcome obstacles creatively rather than exclusively through dice resolution. It’s a nice change but it means that I’m having to rethink how I run those complex encounters.
One of the solutions that I’ve come up with is to take simpler traps, like pit traps, and to rethink how they operate. My standard way of thinking about the pit trap for years was that it occupied a whole 5’x5′ square of the playing field and that it was either deep enough that it caused harm to the players who fell in it or was occupied at the bottom by some further malady that would inflict harm on the players (such as a swarm of rats or sharpened stakes that would impale the players). There are other options available though.
Smaller Pits: It is possible to have a pit trap that does not fully occupy a single square of the play field. Instead it can partially take up the area of play and present a percentage chance of activating, thereby trapping a single character.
Conical Pits: These pits start out large at the top and then fall down to a very narrow center which is used to trap the player at the bottom. Used in conjunction with a flooding device or the release of some creature towards the player it can really heighten their anxiety in the situation.
The first time that I actually saw a conical pit in action was in the novel The Bloody Eye by T.H. Lain (this time a pseudonym used by Johnny L. Wilson). The book is largely unremarkable other than this scene:
. . . Krusk led the way with Jozan following immediately behind him. Yddith followed Jozan, while Alhandra and Qorrg covered the rear. Everyone felt confident as they walked carefully through the auxiliary tunnel. Then, Krusk felt something give way beneath his feet. A cracking sound accompanied the movement of the flooring, followed by he sound of loose earth. A patchwork of bamboo that had been overlaid with dirt gave way. Krusk reached vainly for something to grab hold of and failed to find it. He slid to the bottom of a rough pit about ten feet deep. He landed on his feet, but realized that his fall must have broken a conduit made of pottery. Water was rushing over him and rapidly filling the narrow pit.
As Krusk considered his situation, he realized how diabolical was the trap. Water, probably from the stream, was diverted into the conduit. When someone fell through the bamboo covering and broke the pottery seal, a portion of the stream ran directly into the pit. The pit narrowed at the bottom so that Krusk’s legs were tightly wedged between the walls. With so little room to spare, the well was filling rapidly. Worse, Krusk couldn’t move his legs and could barely shift his arms . . . (154-155)The Bloody Eye by T.H. Lain
That’s the sort of thing that we need more of in adventures. A trap that really threatens a player’s character. Add in a few monsters to attack the party as they try to retrieve their fallen comrade you’ve got the making of a fantastic gaming moment that they’ll be talking about for weeks later.
Multistage Pit Traps: These traps are set off in segments. First a player falls into the pit, then as their fellow players attempt to save them a secondary trap is sprung which adds additional complications. My personal favorite is to have the players pulling their comrade out of the trap using a rope and letting the fellow clambering their way out trigger the falling rock trap above their would be rescuers heads by kicking the release which is set into the wall of the pit.
What other variations can you think of to the classic pit trap?
Lain, T.H. The Bloody Eye. Wizards of the Coast. 2003. USA. pgs 154 – 155 PRINT