People are stuck in a lot of bad thinking when it comes to how to use traps in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. Traditionally, people see traps as a way to use resources by dispensing some damage along the way. Largely, this falls flat in a 5th edition game where resting lets you recover quickly. Worse, randomly placed traps can come off as spiteful or thrown in just to annoy the players. So, if you want to make traps a more exciting part of an encounter, create traps that drive things forward rather than simple binary events.
The best way to come up with an excellent trap is to ask yourself, “why does this trap exist?“
Why Do Traps Exist?
Before adding anything to an encounter, ask yourself “what do I want out of this?”. Things don’t randomly exist in any encounter, you created it for a purpose. Perhaps, you might be moving the plot forward, or foreshadowing an interesting development. You might be adding them as a change of pace, leading the players to ask “why does this exist” and roleplaying it out. Alternatively, you might add a trap to make a combat more dynamic and trilling.
A good trap advances the plot or enhances the action… A great trap does both!
That is to say, it shouldn’t be a mild annoyance or just use up resources, that comes off as cheap to players. Think of a trap like an exclamation mark highlighting the plot, or a comma describing the action of a combat.
Advancing the Plot
Traps are a great way to imply information to the players, or just directly tell them something. It can say something about the resources or thinking of the enemy. They can be a pointer to let players know there’s something important here. Additionally, traps can setup distractions and make the players feel like they are in a battle of wits with the bad guys.
Some examples of using traps to further the plot:
- Players are investigating a simple manor with a magical trap doing necromantic damage. Making them wonder how did the owner get access to such magics?
- A trapped pathway is triggered against whoever might be coming the other way. This suggests something they’re is trying to be kept from getting out.
- A trap using a special poison might tie back to a local thieves’ guild. Alternatively, a clockwork contraption back to the local artificer’s guild. Leading the players to the next stage of their investigation into a mystery.
- A trap on a seemingly normal segment of wall in an otherwise unremarkable location. This results in discovering a hidden plot device or secret that moves the party forward in the plot.
- Traps that cause an effect like sleep, incapacitation, or some other non-damaging effect. Indicates they may be facing a foe that could be negotiated with.
These examples shift the focus of a trap from a damage delivery mechanism to a plot mechanism. This lets you communicate something to the players and spending time with the clue gives them something to debate. In these cases, traps do their job without doing damage or effecting the players in any way. There’s an argument to be made that DMs should consider letting players find them automatically. Afterall, important plot information should be obvious.
Advancing The Action
My favored way to use traps is to enhance the action of a game session. To do so, we need to create a trap that either presents a complex skill challenge itself, or complicates combat in an interesting way. In other words, traps are as much a part of the environment or encounter as any other element in the world. Given that, think of an integrating a trap into a scene when you find yourself asking yourself you could spice things up.
Skill Challenge Traps
Traps that present skill challenges usually modify the environment in some way that needs the players to generate ideas and skills. Similar to 4th edition Skill Challenges, the DM should imagine a series of thing that a trap might trigger and what skills players might use. For example, a simple pit trap that drops a player into water with a lid that slams shut over them. The player in the trap may need to roll Athletics to reach air pockets and stay afloat, particularly if they have equipment. Additionally, they may need perception to locate a disabling mechanism and a Dex check to work it. Characters above may try an object attack to break the hatch or more.
In the example above we’re talking about a simple trap but you can hopefully see how the trap is just a setup for a situation that engages the players rather than just delivering hit points. Some other examples that might create complex environments that require skill or attribute rolls are listed below as well.
- A hallway of spinning blades players must dodge to reach the disable mechanism.
- An environmental challenge like falling ice from a ceiling, requiring characters to roll DEX to navigate without causing them to fall.
- A series of charged plates that deliver a shock requiring the players to probe the location and discovery the navigable path forward or find another way around.
- A poison trap that causes damage over time to a character, requiring medical rolls, or herbalism kit checks to manage.
In all of these cases, it helps if you think of traps more as environmental challenges and how they can add tension to the narrative.
Traps work particularly well as mechanisms to enhance or complicate combats. Notably, they add some element of additional danger, time pressure, or dimension to engage skills. With this in mind, DMs can add traps as a way to trigger combat or add an extra effect to combat that enhances the danger in a fun way.
Understanding that traps are mostly defensive in nature, many examples will put the players at a disadvantage. Together with the physical foes the players might face, the DM should be calculating all of these elements together to balance any given scenario.
- A pit trap with slamming lid at a place someone might try to sneak past a guard post.
- A trapped bridge that dumps characters into water while archers fire from the other side.
- A series of caltrops hidden in deep grass, protecting archers in an ambush. The tall grass making for difficult terrain while the caltrops might do some damage or halt movement.
- Pressure plates might trigger arrows or falling objects. This gives enemies a reason to position in hopes the players will trigger these devices.
- A trapdoor in the ceiling might see goblins coming through it alerted to add to a fight the players are trying to manage. While not a traditional ‘trap’ the mechanism is the same. A mechanical complication the players have to manage in a way that ratchets up the tension.
Setting Difficulties and Effects
The Dungeon Masters Guide has an excellent guide to Trap Save DCs and Attack Bonuses which is great. However, instead of a flat setback to deadly scale, I like to map DCs and bonuses to player level as well. So I prefer to use CR as a rough guide instead. This means, my trap DCs, Attack Bonus, and damage map smoothly to like so:
- Damage is CR d10.
- Attack bonus is 2 + 1/2 CR.
- Save DC is 10 + 1/2 CR.
The key here is to pick something that enhances encounters, the story, or combat in a way that is interesting without adding much overhead. The simple difficulty guideline should allow you to do that without overbalancing.
Returning to the original point, traps can be so much more than arbitrary ways to distribute hit points. Coupled with an interesting base encounter, traps can be an excellent way to dial up the tension or engage the players more. Expressly, traps can be thought of more as an environmental challenge than a simple event. Sitting back and asking yourself what you want out of this trap, asking why someone would want to put a trap in a location, and how it can add to the encounter is a quick and simple way to setup a great trap.
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