Traps. We all know what they are and how they work. Bait something with the proverbial carrot, the machinations whir, boom! Trap sprung, prey caught. Simple enough in theory but have you ever looked at your traps and wondered, “Gee, this isn’t a very good trap! What am I doing wrong?” Well I’m going to dissect your problems and show you the correct way to go about trap-making to the point your rogue will curl into a ball and learn to fear your evil reign whenever you even mention a pressure plate!
To make the best traps, you have to follow a few rules that seem obvious but are often forgotten. As much as you might think that your trap is perfect, you have to remember that three or more people will be actively trying to solve your clever tricks by either bashing it, brute forcing through it, deactivating it, or simply ignoring it. Traps have to be made with the party in mind. Some will excel at trap busting and can speed-run through a mega dungeon in one session if they are good enough. Others will struggle with any kind of trap you throw at them and forget they can actually take the time to search around them or use their resources creatively. Knowing your party’s strengths and weaknesses is half the battle with actually making the traps the true challenge you’ll be facing. Of course, this can vary greatly depending on what characters you are GMing.
So before I mention anything else, I have to bring up the rogue. Why? In most games that have a rogue or rogue-like character, they tend to be the most dexterous and the most adept at finding traps and disabling them. Some even go to great lengths to excel at this type of skill set and become trap maniacs, hoping that the Perception checks they make every five minutes will reveal something for their spidery little hands to mess around with. Varying on what system you are playing, the rogue will most likely be your sworn enemy if you are a trap-loving GM. Go beyond my suggestions because those rogues will ruin. Your. Day.
The first and biggest rule you have to remember about traps is that they can’t be solved by just a roll of the dice. Imagine. You are going through a dungeon with your group, hoping to set off a pitfall trap on them when the party rogue uses a Spot or Perception check to look around. They roll. They succeed. The trap has been ruined in a short minute and they navigate about it in one way or another. A simple example but one seen too often. If you’re going to be setting up traps, you have to make it more advanced than that.
Layering on traps can be an effective tool for this issue, having the party focus on one trap when pow! Another trap activates right after they think they’ve solved the first one! If you’re in a bind with simpler traps, like when using kobold or goblin enemies, have them roll more dice instead. Layers of camouflage covering different sections of the trap or multiple aspects and mechanical parts can require several rolls being involved to deactivate it. Even if they get one part right, they will still have more chances to fail, giving the trap more presence and an actual risk involved. Do they risk setting it off at that point? Do they try another route? This gives some interesting decisions and can dynamically change a dungeon layout. Using one easily passable trap to trick the party to set off another one is also a great method. A pitfall that has a hidden pressure plate right after you cross it is a great example. A good rule of thumb when doing this however is to consider how much it will take to beat the trap in question and will it be worth it for your particular party to interact with.
The next thing to consider is how many traps you place in your campaign. One trap, two traps, three thousand traps, the same thing will always happen. Once that first trap happens, the rogue goes Perception super sleuth and slogs the party down by demanding a new roll every ten feet they move. Nobody likes this and much less you who might have eight or so traps in the dungeon still waiting. It’s a tiring process and even if in character they don’t do this, there is a lingering overhead thought amongst the group of the possibility of more traps. It’s always a difficult task to balance out meta knowledge in your groups but a few simple tricks can help alleviate this.
Having your party deal with traps only once in awhile and in specific places like dungeons and ruins is the easiest solution and can actually be used to perk up some of the less involved members in a group too. Sometimes the biggest trap can be the illusion that you have a trap readied for them, though this can backfire easily with more paranoid players. You can also give those who do constant trap checking a bit more leeway when looking for traps. If they roll to check for traps in say a normal room, you can give them one check and describe that the whole room is safe even if they might just be doing just one area. Not only does it hasten the pace but requires less work to describe the area and can ease tensions for the group. Keep in mind that you should aim to create a balance for your group so that they will actually move more than fifty feet in a session but still be wary of situations you present to them. This takes at least a few trial traps to see how they react but you’ll eventually learn what’s good for them and use that knowledge to improve your future sessions.
Pitfalls are fun and all but basic traps like them, no matter how many you have or how well they are incorporated in a dungeon, will fall flat once a player knows how to navigate them properly. A wooden board over the pit. Throwing heavy rocks onto pressure plates. Using the ten foot pole to hit far reaching parts and switches. Those are classic workarounds but in more recent table tops, these are the poor man’s choices with the sheer plethora of spells, magic items, and abilities often at their disposal. So when the players fly over your pitfall trap for the third time in a row, it’s time to consider your options.
Subverting the expectations of the players is key to a good series of traps. Take what they conventionally know about a trap and twist it on its end! That pit they are trying to cross? It actually has a transparent ooze that uses its tendrils to swipe at passing prey, party included. The arrow trap that trails down the hall? Malfunctioned and shoots in a cone shape now. The pressure plate that was discovered on the floor? It’s magical and certain races activate it instead of just anyone, confusing the orc and surprising the gnome. In fact, using spells against the party for your traps can be tremendous fun, especially spells that aren’t necessarily damage dealers. Nobody expects the giant rolling boulder to actually just be an illusion after all. Surprising your party and setting solid but fair rules on how your traps work can be rewarding for both players and GM if done correctly.
Less a rule and more a suggestion is that not every trap should be meant for the rogue to solve. This might trigger the red alert for some of you but consider this. The party has no rogue. The rogue is more of an assassin build. Or for whatever reason, they didn’t get the trap necessary skills needed to perform at their very best. It happens and sometimes parties get rather lopsided in their composition.You may be stuck with all front-liners or your group is more based around magic or social themes. Rarely will a group be perfectly well-rounded so it’s good to consider traps that even without a rogue can be solved utilizing the party’s strengths.
Of course all of this stems from an understanding of who is in your party and how much you know about your players and their characters. Even the most shy will be able to contribute in some way if you make a trap that only their character can solve. Have a strength-based trap that would require the barbarian to lift up a portcullis for an extended period of time. Use a series of precarious platforms a monk could hop upon to get the switch in the back of the room. The wizard may need to solve a series of arcane writings in just the right order so the party doesn’t get thrown into an extradimensional maze. Incorporating traps that other party members would excel at can set a great variety for the party and give you a better arsenal at your disposal. Not only that but you can easily get the whole group involved with one or two well thought out traps instead of just having them rely on one person to get the job done.
I shouldn’t have to mention this one but don’t let your party know about your traps. It is not up to you to remind the party that they have the ability to ask you what they see around them. You’ve worked hard on these traps and, in the nature of their design, they are meant to surprise their victims with often lethal consequences. So after spending time and creative resources, are you going to point out to the party without any reason or provocation about the “slightly raised rock” in the middle of the path? It might be a personal experience but I’ve seen plenty of GM’s reveal such information to my party and, of course, we pounce on it, leading to them having less than desirable results.
Make sure to keep your traps hidden or else you’ll be setting up for immediate failure. What I don’t mean is that you have to have every trap secreted away behind a Perception check. What I mean is that if you put a sign that points down two paths and it says “One is trapped”, don’t have a footnote where it points to the right side that screams that the trap is down that road. They should know that going down into a long forgotten ruin will bound to be trapped and they should take precautions beforehand to deal with them. Keeping them a secret is also incredibly satisfying, especially when the trap fully works and everything falls into line against the party.
You are the GM of a massive, ever expanding world of canonical content and homebrew designs. Use every resource and every clever idea at your disposal. Look at real life examples and older editions of your choice of game for inspiration. Find something interesting and incorporate it into the most insidious thing your party can encounter. If your party finishes the session talking about how they activated a trap or how they overcame one then you have achieved the apex of what it means to make a proper experience for your party. The biggest thing we can achieve in our time of playing any tabletop is the memories we make out of it. So I hope that the advice I’ve given will prove to work for you in some way or another, making plenty of memorable splatter death falls and Indiana Jones style situations. If any of you have these stories, don’t be shy and share them in the comments below!