RPG Evolution: The Pit Problem

Pits and other obstacles tell a lot about a party's power level.

Pits and other obstacles tell a lot about a party's power level.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It's the Pits

The basic concept of a pit trap is predicated on several factors. It's probably hidden (and thus potential victims don't simply walk around it). It's deep enough that falling to the bottom will hurt. And it's steep enough that it's not easy to get out of. But a party's ability to circumvent says a lot about a party's power level at a glance.

In 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a party's power level can give them access to magic that easily bypass these types of traps and challenges like them (e.g., a cliff instead of a pit). Once these abilities and traits become accessible to characters, the trap is no longer an obstacle. Certain types of obstacles are therefore only a challenge for certain levels. If a party levels up mid-adventure, this can significantly change the difficulty of the game.

Of course, a party's ability to deal with these challenges are determined by the PCs' class abilities. A party composed of only fighters will have a much tougher time than one with a wizard or cleric. For the purposes of this thought experiment, we're using those two classes as a barometer for when spells become available (and thus their minimum level they get access to it).

Detecting the Pit

The best way to deal with a trap is to avoid it. Spells like clairvoyance (3rd level spell/5th level caster), arcane eye (4th level spell/7th level caster) and scrying (5th/9th) make the risks of scouting ahead trivial. They still don't reveal actual traps however; true seeing (6th/11th) addresses that. By 5th level, parties with spellcasters who are prepared can avoid most traps that rely on surprise.

Avoiding the Pit

Assuming the pit is detected, avoiding it is the next obvious step. Misty step (2nd/3rd) hops right past most obstacles, while fly (3rd/5th) speeds up movement in three dimensions. Freedom of movement (4th/7th) nullifies any trap that involves any form of restraint. This is why flight matters if it's part of a species' trait because it easily circumvents traps like this, giving 1st level characters the power of a 5th level wizard.

Surviving the Pit

Pits inflict damage in a lot of ways, the most obvious being from the fall. Feather fall (1st/1st) and enhance ability (2nd/3rd) addresses the falling itself, and a wide variety of spells deal with the aftermath to nullify the potential damage, like gaseous form (3rd/5th) or stoneskin (4th/7th). If the pit has poison spikes at the bottom, protection from poison (2nd/3rd) helps reduce the damage, while flooded pits can be addressed with water breathing (3rd/5th). Again, by 5th level most of the threats a pit pose can be nullified.

Implications for Design

Game designers don't always know what characters will face their challenges, so at best they can recommend for or against certain classes or levels. By 3rd level sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards can use misty step to jump past most traps that require walking through them. 5th level opens up movement in three dimensions for sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards with the fly spell and water breathing. By 11th level, most mechanical traps are probably not going to work against PCs who are prepared. This doesn't mean that the entire party can benefit from these spells, that the party has enough spell slots to address the problem, or that they even prepared the right spells to begin with.

Game masters also need to be aware of these power jumps. As characters level up, their access to certain spells can significantly change how challenging an encounter is. What might be a problem in one encounter could be a breeze in the next.

Spells themselves have limitations. As one of my players pointed out, the fly spell requires concentration, so if the warlock who cast it was knocked unconscious it could be disastrous for the other two flying party members. Spells can be countered and dispelled, which could be brutal for PCs deep underwater when their water breathing spell fails.

In a level-based game like D&D, magic is part of how the game works. But it's also what separates adventurers from mere mortals who have to spot, jump, and climb out of pits.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Pits are still a major challenge if you don't know to look for them. My first ever character died because she didn't think there were any traps and moved forward and fell into a 50ft pit with spikes at the bottom. The fall itself didn't kill her but brought her down to low single digit HP, and when the party was lowering a rope and helping her up we got hit by random wandering monsters and almost TPKed,


The section on detecting the pit could use a mention of the good old-fashioned ten-foot pole, plus minions / summons that can be sent as canaries.

Gaseous form seems like it should go in the Avoiding section rather than Surviving. It can't be cast as a reaction, so it won't save you from being damaged if you don't already have it active, and it confers a 10 ft flying speed and immunity to falling, so if it is active you won't need to worry about falling into the pit in the first place.

which could be brutal for PCs deep underwater when their water breathing spell fails.

Because it's a ritual waterbreathing is incredibly easy in 5e. My home brew fix from it being cast every morning by the party is that rituals require a material component cost. Otherwise everyone is just a merperson and water loses all meaning.

"I got water breathing" becomes as obiqitious as "i got dark vision"

Dispelling it is fun. Your party will hate when you TPK them so do it once when it is shallow water so they understand the risk.


An interesting premise for an article, squandered on a barebones analysis of spells by level. Yes, Talien, I know that a wizard can use "Stoneskin" to mitigate the damage of a pit trap. I though you were going to look into the system itself, silly me.

A pit is spotted. How far can a lvl 1 character jump? What about at level 5? 10? 20?

Again, this is an interesting premise. Perhaps a followup article could be in order?

A pit is spotted. How far can a lvl 1 character jump? What about at level 5? 10? 20?
jumping in 5e is based on str you can with a 10 ft start jump your str score in feet, so 8ft-20ft

there are some DMs I have had that let you make DC 10 athletics checks to add +1ft to the jump plus 1 more per 5 over that. We had a multi classed psywarrior once get 17ft from str add a d8 to the ft jumped, then roll almost 30 for his athletics check for 4 more feet then tripple for jump spell and end up at just over 80ft


All those spells show that pits and other traps were a large part of older editions. I feel that the feel and use of traps have gone down a lot over the years. Now we tend to have Perception checks to notice, and sometimes a save to grab onto the edge of a pit before falling into a pit. I tend to use them now for adding to an encounter or to foreshadow another trap or pit coming up later. I do not want to go back to the slow crawl of searching every 5ft square and the 'standard door opening sequence #4' using 6 checks before touching the door. I fend a pit trap now is good for making a PC miss a round or two of combat, or even make two PCs miss a couple rounds if one needs to help the other out.

It is mostly a low-level problem like the article is saying though. I guess there could be a pit that teleports you to another plane or such, but that might be another thread about separating the party and how fun it is to sit out for a game night.


At higher levels I think pits are better in conjunction w/other challenges. Walking down a corridor over a pit trap that does not go off can give characters a sense of safety until an ogre, minotaur, or two with tower shields throw a switch that opens the pit and drops a wall on the other side. If I'm the wizard at the back of the column I would start freaking out if feather fall won't save me if a fighter in a ton of plate is gonna crush my @$$.

I don't know. The rogue finds a 10 foot wide, 50 foot deep pit. Assuming he can't disable the trap door or just circumvent the trap (I mean, how do the locals get around?), the fighters and (often) the rogues jump over it without expending any resources. The wizard and the sorcerer spend a 2nd level spell each to misty step.

Was it easy to bypass? Sure. But the magic users are down a 2nd level spell.

In a high level campaign, a 2nd level spell isn't much but for a 3rd level party it's a lot. In either case, though, the pit did its job and expended resourses.

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