Why Dungeon Masters Should Incorporate More Traps in D&D
Traps are often seen as a tax on players, that serve only to wear down characters and draw out a campaign. However, intentional use of traps can be one of the most powerful tools in a Dungeon Master’s (we call them Quest Masters) toolbox to let characters utilize their skills, balance encounter difficulty, increase player problem solving, and create a unique storytelling experience.
Including traps in your campaign gives characters the opportunity to use skills that they might not otherwise be able to use. Thieves tools are vital for disarming traps and make rogues feel especially useful in a dungeon where they might not otherwise have use. Proficiency in Arcana may allow characters to assess and disarm magical traps.
The real value is in allowing characters to use niche skills, which may otherwise have no use in the game; this enables the character to role-play and elaborate on their backstory. For instance, Carpenter’s tools may allow characters to notice a seam in a bookcase, which can be carefully opened to reveal a pressure trap on one of the bookshelves. Tinker’s tools may permit a character to disarm a delicate mechanical trap, which fires a poisoned arrow out of an inappropriately opened lock. Mason’s tools may let characters carefully lift and disable a pressure plate in the stone floor.
When faced with an encounter that will be too easily overcome by a party, it can be challenging to scale the encounter appropriately, especially if it includes unique or otherwise important NPCs which should not be changed. Instead of trying to buff the encounter, a Quest Master (QM) can introduce traps that the adventurers face before arriving at the combat. While this does wear the characters down, which some consider “unfun,” it also sets the tone for the lair and serves to help adjust the combat encounter to the appropriate strength.
Additionally, traps can be added directly to combat encounters. Clever enemies may use these traps to their advantage, maneuvering characters into pit traps or beneath falling rocks. While this can serve to aid the enemy, smart parties also have the opportunity to turn the tables. For instance, after discovering a pit trap with a Perception check, a character may position themselves so that the pit trap is between themselves and an enemy melee combatant. When the enemy charges towards them, they will fall into the pit trap, taking additional damage.
Providing new and elaborate traps also offers players the opportunity to work on their problem-solving skills. Traps or puzzles which require multiple people to disable, increase group cohesion and cooperation.
Instead of saying “there’s a pressure plate,” try describing the area and what the characters would actually see (i.e., “the tiled floor ahead of you looks uneven, with one tile sinking slightly lower than the others”). Allow them to explore the environment and discover elements of the trap on their own. After they’ve formed opinions about it, ask them how they would like to disable it. Instead of saying “I use thieves tools,” encourage them to describe how they use the tools (i.e. “I wedge a lock-pick in each side of the block to try and hold it in place, so it can’t move up and down”). Based on their actions, consider giving them bonuses to their Thieves Tools check or skipping the check altogether. This creates a stronger sense of character agency and storytelling, which results in a better experience.
Traps are an integral experience that has been part of Dungeons and Dragons since Advanced DnD. Classic adventures, such as the Tomb of Horrors, have been made famous because of their challenging puzzles and trap environments. Navigating and successfully completing these dungeons has become a badge of honor and a shared experience which binds the community together.
Using traps allows you as the QM to convey a unique experience that is core the location the characters are interacting with. Traps make the setting feel alive and create another adversary. Different types of traps convey the skills and motives of enemies, as well as the peril of particular environments.
Certain monsters, such as kobolds and goblins are famous for their trap-making expertise. A goblin lair is unimaginable without the bone-filled pit traps and poisoned spikes. A kobold lair would feel incomplete without poison darts or stink bombs. Classic tombs without rolling ball traps, fire breathing statues, and spheres of annihilation would just feel empty.
While improper use of traps can begin to feel like a slog or a tax on players, using traps properly creates a unique and authentic experience that should not be missed.
What are some traps you've included in your campaigns? How did your players fare? Let us know in the comments below!