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Incorporating Traps Effectively in 5E D&D

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Salutations, nerds! Today I’m writing about traps and how they work in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. This is one of those things I don’t see in 5E D&D play as often as I used to and honestly it’s a bit of a shame. In this post I’m thinking about ways of incorporating traps into dungeons and instead of throwing a bunch of traps out for Dungeon Masters to use I’m going to break down what goes into a good one and how to make them satisfying for players. Ready? Let’s do this.

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Establishing Usage of Traps in 5E D&D

There are two parts of this post involved in playing fair. This is the first one. While logistically speaking it makes complete sense for a villain to trap one door in their entire dungeon in the hopes the heroes feel comfortable and confident there won’t be one on this particular door and trigger it, this is a bit of a bad look for a DM.

This relates to the aspect of consent brought up in a previous post about evoking fear. It’s important for a DM to start with the tone they mean to continue using. If there is a big trap late in the dungeon then confronting the characters with a smaller one early on so warns them by implication traps are a thing that can happen. The first couple of rooms establish a point for what players can expect going forward.

As a general rule the first of anything should be a warning shot. Whether it’s a trap, combat encounter or a puzzle it should be the flag for characters to expect more of this going forward. In this case it establishes how in this dungeon there will be traps. And if players get salty because they spring a trap at the end of a dungeon when they’ve never come across one before…they’re allowed. Play fair and establish what pieces are in play early.

How the trap is triggered

There are weight traps, trip wires, pressure plates and glyphs of warding. Heck, a trap could be rigged up to chains hanging from the ceiling to cause the ceiling to drop when one of them is jostled too much. The point of this is what the characters have to do in order to set the trap off in the first place.

Contrary to popular belief it’s not necessary to know how the mechanism works. Imagine it like Minecraft’s Redstone. A pressure plate is placed here. The arrow is in the wall there. The character steps on the plate and after a slight delay to get them in line with the arrow it fires and doses them with neurotoxin. Got it? Good. Moving right along.

Playing fair (the parts you can see)

It makes total sense for a brilliant dungeoneer to be able to make a pressure plate completely flush with the floor so no one has a chance of spotting it but if the DM does this I consider it cheating so please don’t. Instead think about the trap trigger and what could be visible to the eye to show it’s location.

Perception doesn’t only mean sight. While it’s easy enough for a character who beats the DC to detect the trap notice the trip wire it’s just as viable to tell them they smell the acrid scent of sulfur as they approach the chest to let them know something is up even if it isn’t visible to them. They might even hear ticking. This is where those Perception and Investigation checks come in handy!

It’s easy enough to tell players they found and disarmed the trap but there’s a lot of fun to be had talking through it with the players and watching them try to figure out how to disarm a trap in real time. Not every group is going to be down for this but I’ve watched more than one party crowding behind a shield while they pushed a door open with a stick so with the right crowd this is absolutely worth doing.

What happens if no one detects the trap?

The bad stuff! The trap effects! …Or the fun stuff for those who are a little bit sadistic.

Let’s break this down a little bit first. There’s three kinds of traps. The kind designed to hurt characters and the kind meant to hinder them. A third kind aims to put the pressure on. This third kind?

“The room is slowly filling up with sand or poisonous gas” or “The walls are closing in on you.”

— Traps putting characters on the clock!

Those are fun but beyond the scope of what I set out to address in this post so I’m gonna focus on the first two.

If the trap is meant to damage characters there’s a dozen ways to accomplish this. I don’t have to give examples for how to have acid explode on adventurers or pepper them full of arrows. DMs have been doing this since they watched Indiana Jones and thought the rolling boulder was just the coolest thing ever. Traps meant to hinder are more interesting though. Characters probably won’t take damage from a hinder trap but these are almost guaranteed to provide fun chaos to play with in a 5E D&D game.

  • A pitfall opens and then springs shut again leaving a character in a 5 foot by 10 foot shaft beneath the floor.
  • A magical projector appears and sprays the stone floor with enchanted pitch creating what basically amounts to a fly trap.
  • Nets! Nets everywhere! Oh gods so many nets, why?!

Do you encounter traps in your 5E D&D experiences? Does your DM use traps? Want more traps in your life? Share with me in the comments below, start a Twitter fight with me @Pyrosynthesis or just stew about it in the 5×10 foot shaft you dropped into on your way in. I know, it’s hard to type in the dark. Of course, stay nerdy!

*Featured image — You can always find the perfect trap to challenge 5E D&D characters in Treacherous Traps from Nord Games. The book includes 250 premade traps ranging in level and lethality, so that you can always find the perfect trap to challenge your players plus a random trap generator along with tips and tricks for using traps, puzzles and riddles.

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Robin Miller

Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Robin Miller lives in southern Ohio where they keep mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. They have a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and they are happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Their fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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