Traps are a staple of classic Dungeons & Dragons games. Whether your players are inching their way through a kobold lair at first level, raiding the workshop of a mad artificer or matching wits with Acererak, a few traps can really raise the stakes and spice up your game. Any game master interested in adding traps to their dungeons should absolutely read up on the trap rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and should also keep good gameplay in mind when they implement them. This boils down to considering what makes encounters fun and what makes certain ones frustrating.
Unless you are specifically going for a hardcore old-school funhouse dungeon feel, your traps should be logically consistent, they should have multiple ways to be defeated and they should give the players more choices to make rather than fewer. Poorly laid out or arbitrary traps will be little more than a boring tax on your players’ HP on their way to the good stuff rather than an exciting and memorable encounter in their own right.
Traps may seem at odds with the modern narrative style of most campaigns, but they can lead to truly memorable moments. Implementing traps can mean some extra prep for the Game Master, but seeing your players’ reactions when they discover a secret at the bottom of that pit will make it all worth it. With that in mind, here are four styles of traps you can implement to bring a devious challenge to your next game session.
A terrain changing trap transforms the player’s environment, creating weather, difficult terrain or steep inclines. A classic example of this is the humble pit trap. Depending on what nastiness you choose to place at the bottom, falling into one can spell serious trouble for adventurers of any level. Pits make great traps because they are versatile, allowing you to place monsters in them, skill challenges to escape or facilitate exploration by having the pit lead to another area of the dungeon entirely.
By combining terrain changers with other threats like monsters, you can create fun challenges for your players. They also provide an interesting way to literally turn combat on its head. Ideally, clever players will be able to use spells or brute strength to maneuver enemies into their own traps, as few things in life are as satisfying as booting a goblin into its own pit.
In this type of trap, the entire room is trying to kill the players somehow. A pop-culture example of this is the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars: A New Hope in which the heroes must find a way to escape a colossal crushing machine. As the compactor springs to life and the walls start to close in, the characters realize there is a clear time limit to solving the trap. A challenge like this could pit perfectly into a D&D game.
Of course, players will have to be trapped inside the doom room for it to work. In some ways, triggering the room at all might feel like a failure on the player’s part. But in reality, triggering the room should merely prompt an interesting challenge: how do we get out? Ideally, players will either need to figure out how to break the room (jamming the compactor with this beam might work) or escape it before it kills them (by say, using a Sending spell to tell your follower to shut down all the garbage-mashers on the detention level).
Apparent traps completely forgo the ideas of misdirection, stealth and ambush. They are often sitting directly in the open for anyone to interact with or ignore. The challenge of the apparent trap isn’t so much the detection, but in the puzzle involved with figuring out what it does, circumnavigating it or disabling it entirely. The exact nature of the trap doesn’t need to be revealed up front, and some information might only be available through experimentation. For example, the Green Devil Face of Tomb of Horrors fame is sitting right out in the open for anybody to climb inside, but anybody who tests it with their trusty 10-foot pole knows what will happen if they do.
Another way to use the apparent trap is as a test or gauntlet for the players to traverse. Can the player snatch the treasure quickly enough to avoid being cut by the spinning blades? Or, can the team traverse the long hallway full of crushing thwomps and rotating lava bars? While there is some overlap with hazards and dangerous terrain here, apparent traps are usually mechanical and intentional.
The trapped device is one of the most common styles of trap, and it mainly uses trickery or camouflage to throw off players. A basic example of the trapped device would be a treasure chest that contains only pain, but any object can have some sort of consequences for being activated improperly. For best results, give your players plenty of opportunities to figure out the ruse, and not just with Perception and Investigation skills. Depending on the theme and location of the trap, almost any skill could be used to notice that something isn’t quite right. Imagine a small magic item that’s imprisoning a monster. Picking up and using the item doesn’t trigger the trap at all, but allowing the trapped monster to convince you to free it does.
Trapped devices can be fun when they are mysteries to be solved, but they can be frustrating when overused. Campaigns become tedious when too many items are made into hidden traps, as your player will learn to obsessively search everything. Instead, reserve trapped devices for special occasions, give players enough chances to figure them out and make sure the reward is worth the trouble.
Traps are a classic component of Dungeons & Dragons, but they need to be implemented correctly to be more than just a frustrating inconvenience.