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DM Advice: Drop a trap where the party expects one [Traps: Part II]

Skills and class features are meant to be used. It is fun to exercise our character's skills, spells, and equipment in ways that are meaningful and satisfying. As a Dungeon Master (DM), we need to be creating scenarios and environments that invite the use of these abilities. But, as many DMs are aware, it's not easy work to consistently come up with meaningful and satisfying problems for any given location. The party Wizard may be holding onto a utility spell for twenty sessions and never have a clear use for it. Similarly, a diligent character with Thieves Tools and a knack for Sleight of Hand may take point in a dungeon crawl to actively check for traps, yet not encounter a single one. I, as DM, am guilty of leaving traps out of environments I create. This absence of traps can be caused by forgetfulness, lack of time to prepare them, or simply my personal struggle with how to best use them. Hence this "Traps" series is born. Under the circumstances in which no traps exist in the dungeon, actively checking for them is a waste of time. At least it is from my perspective. There are no traps. I know this. The party, however, may be expecting traps at every turn. Especially if their DM doesn't follow the principle of make traps visible, which we explored in Traps: Part I.

So, maybe we forgot to put a trap in the ruins. Or, maybe the trap is five rooms down and not where the Ranger is currently investigating. The party checks for traps, halting their forward march. We know there's no trap planned for that spot. We could say the typical "Based on your roll, you thiiiink there aren't any traps here. You don't seeeee any. It appearszzz to be safe." Maybe the roll was average or low. And then the party hems-and-haws, debating whether it is safe, and a second character steps up to check again. Or someone pulls out their 10ft pole to test the ground. Paranoia grips the players, which in turn infects their characters. All the same, there's still no trap to be discovered. Some kind Dungeon Masters might even explicitly say so, definitively, that there are no traps there. The party moves on. Nothing to see here.

Let's try that again. This time, let's have the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG) handy and put the quick-thinking improv skills to the test. Our party comes to a stone door in the half-buried ruins of some ancient place. The Rogue checks the hallway leading up the door for traps. When this ruin was conceptualized and put to paper by the DM, no trap was considered for this location. At the moment in which the Rogue checks for a trap... none exists. The DM gives pause for a moment, considering. The Rogue is allowed to roll a Wisdom (Perception) check to search for traps. While doing so, the DM calmly and coolly cracks open their DMG or shuffles their notes. "Ah yes, just checking my notes," they say whilst hastily inventing a trap and spawning it into the world, just in time for the Rogue to detect it! Good thing the Rogue was there to discover it before the party walked right into it. Now the player character (PC) can use their Thieves Tools and their Sleight of Hand check to disarm the trap. Or, the DM can integrate the concepts of make traps visible and start crafting a more interactive experience on the fly. Either way, the Rogue is validated at that moment and rewarded for their diligence.

Alternatively, perhaps the Dungeon Master had a trap planned for the other side of the door. An easy solution is to move that trap to where the party is currently anticipating one. Simple and satisfying!

There are a few caveats to consider.

  1. Moderation. Use this "trick" in moderation. Just because the party is checking for traps doesn't mean they should always find a trap. Think critically and use the best judgment.

  2. Design Cohesion. If there's a trap in the dungeon that is integral to a puzzle or makes the most sense in that specific location then do not move it for the sake of instant payoff. Keep the environment's design intact and let the party organically find the meaningful traps.

  3. Balance. A party may check for traps where there are none and roll badly. In these cases, we don't have to invent a trap just for them to bumble into. It's okay to play to their favor and just say: "You don't see a trap and keep going, nothing bad happens." Try to invent traps only when it benefits the party. Make the challenge be about subverting the trap now that it exists.

  4. Keep it Simple. If we're going to improvise a trap out of thin air, keep it simple. A pit, poison darts, or spikes in the ground. Don't try to conceive a brilliant puzzle trap out of nothing.

  5. Follow the Rules. Try to have a list of real traps from the DMG or trusted homebrew sources handy with logical DCs and damage. If it comes down to winging a trap on the fly be sure to follow the rules and established patterns as they relate to traps and damage types.

That's it. Simply put, invent ways for the players to shine when they're trying to use their skills and tools. It's okay that we can't prepare everything in advance with tailored environments for our party. To compensate, validate the party's ideas and just roll with it.


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