Oh Crap! It’s a Trap!

Oh Crap! It’s a Trap!

What would a dungeon be without a barrage of arrows to dodge, a pit of spikes to leap over, or a door asking a riddle? For me, and I believe many players, it would be boring. Monsters are great, don't get me wrong. There is something about a well placed trap or puzzle that really throws me into the game. I’ve found some of my favorite roleplay memories are from my party working to solve some impossible problem.

As players, traps and puzzles give us time to work through problems without the stress of a social encounter or battle (usually). For DM’s they present a problem: making it relevant. The internet is rife with brilliant ideas to steal and use for your games, but a dungeon slapped together with homebrew can feel… disjointed. 

There are probably more, but here are the categories I put traps and puzzles in:

  1. Locks
  2. Tests
  3. Death

Locks are exactly that: designed to keep out those who shouldn't get it. This can be as simple as a keyed door, or as complex as a puzzle that opens a wall. Both are a type of lock, where the owner of it would either have the key, or know the solution. 

Tests are put in place to determine if the characters are worthy of advancing further, or if they possess some trait. The trait could be as simple as “are they orcs? If not acid fills the room.” An excellent example is the invisible bridge in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy must take a leap of faith to cross to the next area, this is a test of faith. Other tests could be morality, knowledge, or strength. 

Death is something designed purely to main, kill, or distract the characters. It can be fun as a DM, but very disheartening as a player. I like to keep these to a minimum, maybe a false door that explodes or a trap door that leads nowhere important. 

In addition to determining the type, I like to do the following:

First, find the who.

  • Who built the trap?
  • Who is the trap guarding against?
  • Who can pass safely (if anyone)?

Next, determine how deadly it is.

  • Not deadly
  • Chance of maiming
  • Strong possibility of death
  • No solution, it just kills people

So let's tie it all together with an example:

I’m designing a basic dungeon for my players, something subterranean and dark. I loaded it with goblins, but I’m saying it was originally built by Drow who abandoned it long ago. The goal is for players to get to the end which is a treasure room filled with gold (and some brown mold). Before they get there I have a few encounters with goblins, and I want a trap, but have no idea what to use.

Ok, so now let’s examine the questions and see if it helps to narrow down a trap.

  • What sort of trap is it?
    • Lock, meant to keep someone from advancing
  • Who built it?
    • The Drow, a medium humanoid race
  • Who is it guarding against?
    • Others entering the hallway. The goblins are there though, so maybe they can pass safely? I like the idea of goblins simply being unaffected by what the Drow left. 
  • Who can pass safely?
    • A Drow who knows the dungeon can avoid it, maybe with a lever or by moving in a certain way, and goblins. 
  • How deadly is it?
    • Let's say possibility of death

Alright, so I have a trap keeping people out, designed by a medium creature, that is somehow safe for small creatures, but could be deadly. Let’s go with a blade that swings out from the wall, does slashing damage, and knocks medium creatures back. That right, the goblins are just too short to activate it, so they can thrive in the dungeon. Now there are clues I can drop through the dungeon for this, and maybe the players will be lucky enough to have all chosen to play gnomes. 

That's it, just some basic thoughts on how to help you make your traps and puzzles more relevant. If you end up killing your players please just remember, you can always blame me.

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