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.

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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

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.
10ft wide anyone with a 10 str jumps across. it is so easy it's not an issue at all. You really need it to be 15+ feet
 

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MarkB

Legend
10ft wide anyone with a 10 str jumps across. it is so easy it's not an issue at all. You really need it to be 15+ feet
Jumping 10 feet doesn't clear a 10 foot pit. To jump from just before one edge to just after the other so that you land on your feet, you're jumping at least 12-14 feet, and many DMs will round it up to 15 just to be working in squares.

It also requires at least a 10-foot run-up, so a canny DM will place a pit trap just after a corner.

Also, the rules cover incorporating some height into your jump in order to clear a low obstacle such as a hedge or table, but they don't consider having to limit how high you jump in order to avoid low ceilings. If the ceiling is only 5 feet high, that doesn't technically count as squeezing for medium creatures, but a DM could easily rule that it does when they're trying to jump a gap, requiring them to use 2 squares of their available jumping distance for every square they clear.
 

Celebrim

Legend
...And yet Tomb of Horrors managed to make excellent use of the pit trap, at even 14th level.

Tomb of Horrors works fine for martials of any level or spellcasters of up to 10th level, but once spells like 'Find the Path' come online the pit traps cease to be a problem at all. A party of well-played 14th level spellcasters should have little problem with anything in Tomb of Horrors except possibly Acererak in any edition of the game. Besides which, even in Tomb of Horrors, the purpose of the pit traps is simply to telegraph that the dungeon isn't playing around, so that the party won't be taken by surprise by the far worse things ahead.
 

Celebrim

Legend
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.

You can make pit traps a problem of any level, but past a certain point you have to combine them with other traps to get the challenge up high enough. The high-level version of a pit trap is a suction trap that uses some force to funnel PC's into the pit - flowing water, wind, the air is being sucked out of the room, magnets, etc. Once the players can fly you just need more complex sorts of forced movement.

And as you note, it need not be the fall that kills you. The pit can channel you to any numbers of dangers.
 


GuyBoy

Hero
We actually used a pit trap to our advantage this weekend: our mighty, but clumsy, paladin blundered into it, but miraculously rolled a 20 on his dexterity save and jumped back ( shout out @TheSword ). The pit closed. Next encounter was a couple of mummies in a nearby room, who were quiescent until our mage stole the two rubies from their dry hands; cue lambent green lights in hollow eye sockets, lurching to life, pursuit etc!
We fled, skirting the pit’s trigger stone. They didn’t skirt it!
Of course, could be tricky for the next adventurer who falls in to join two raging mummies, but hey, them’s the breaks.........
 
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Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Some pit trap ideas
  • Pit traps with enhanced gravity
    • Gravity extends above the pit trap X meters
    • Gravity extends out from the pit trap X meters
  • Black holes disguised as pit traps
  • Pit trap with tentacled denizen that likes to grab people
  • Pit trap in a wall that changes gravity to run horizontal to ground
  • Pit that's not a trap, but instead where you've got to go for something wicked cool. But unfortunately, the secret door only opens once the spikes at the bottom have tasted blood - lots of blood (ie, at least 25+HP worth of blood)

Also @talien loved that image, I spent 30+ seconds just staring at it 😵‍💫
 

MarkB

Legend
Some pit trap ideas
  • Pit traps with enhanced gravity
    • Gravity extends above the pit trap X meters
    • Gravity extends out from the pit trap X meters
  • Black holes disguised as pit traps
  • Pit trap with tentacled denizen that likes to grab people
  • Pit trap in a wall that changes gravity to run horizontal to ground
  • Pit that's not a trap, but instead where you've got to go for something wicked cool. But unfortunately, the secret door only opens once the spikes at the bottom have tasted blood - lots of blood (ie, at least 25+HP worth of blood)

Also @talien loved that image, I spent 30+ seconds just staring at it 😵‍💫
The variant of that gravity chicanery that I thought of awhile ago was a tall room with floor and ceiling both sloped at 45 degrees, with Reverse Gravity affecting half the room.

So, you fall down to the floor, roll down the slope into the reverse gravity, fall up to the ceiling, roll up the slope out of the reverse gravity, fall down...
 
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Some pit trap ideas
  • Pit traps with enhanced gravity
    • Gravity extends above the pit trap X meters
    • Gravity extends out from the pit trap X meters
  • Black holes disguised as pit traps
  • Pit trap with tentacled denizen that likes to grab people
  • Pit trap in a wall that changes gravity to run horizontal to ground
  • Pit that's not a trap, but instead where you've got to go for something wicked cool. But unfortunately, the secret door only opens once the spikes at the bottom have tasted blood - lots of blood (ie, at least 25+HP worth of blood)

Also @talien loved that image, I spent 30+ seconds just staring at it 😵‍💫
How about a 20 foot illusion. The pit trap is 10 feet away but the illusion makes it look 10 feet closer. It’s only a 5 foot trap: easy to jump over. When you go to jump over the fake trap, you land in the real one.
 

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