RPG Evolution: The Pit Problem

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


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jgsugden

Legend
A pit, by itself, it generally a waste. If the pit is the entire encounter, then there is a possibility for a little damage which likely will not even cause unconciousness, and a little time describing how you get out, and then a wasted spell slot to heal the damage.

However, using the pit as a feature of an encounter, rather than the star, can be very rewarding. Here are a few of my common ways of using pit traps:

1.) It sets off an alarm. In addition to the trapped PC taking some damage, the PC will start the encounter off in a space where they'll have to find a quick way out to join the battle.

2.) It springs mid-battle. Like in 1, they have to deal with the situation with the time urgency of combat underway, but unlike in 1.) it can disrupt the combat strategies of the PCs.

3.) It is less of a "trap" and more of a secret door. The PCs easily find the pit trap and avoid it ... but fail to search the bottom of it where there is a concealed or secret entrance. This works especially well when the base of the pit is covered in a opaque liquid and the passage is beneath the liquid.

4.) When the enemy is at the bottom of the pit. It might be something that swallows, petrifies or grabs and runs off with the target via an underground network. Regardless, the idea is that the pit adds elevation and disruption and isolates a PC as part of the encounter.

5.) A favorite: The pit is the distraction. For example, I love to have a mimic take the shape of the deck on the other side of the pit so that the PCs leap right onto it.

These types of approaches allow me to use typical traps like pits and keep them interesting.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A pit, by itself, it generally a waste. If the pit is the entire encounter, then there is a possibility for a little damage which likely will not even cause unconciousness, and a little time describing how you get out, and then a wasted spell slot to heal the damage.

However, using the pit as a feature of an encounter, rather than the star, can be very rewarding. Here are a few of my common ways of using pit traps:

1.) It sets off an alarm. In addition to the trapped PC taking some damage, the PC will start the encounter off in a space where they'll have to find a quick way out to join the battle.

2.) It springs mid-battle. Like in 1, they have to deal with the situation with the time urgency of combat underway, but unlike in 1.) it can disrupt the combat strategies of the PCs.

3.) It is less of a "trap" and more of a secret door. The PCs easily find the pit trap and avoid it ... but fail to search the bottom of it where there is a concealed or secret entrance. This works especially well when the base of the pit is covered in a opaque liquid and the passage is beneath the liquid.

4.) When the enemy is at the bottom of the pit. It might be something that swallows, petrifies or grabs and runs off with the target via an underground network. Regardless, the idea is that the pit adds elevation and disruption and isolates a PC as part of the encounter.

5.) A favorite: The pit is the distraction. For example, I love to have a mimic take the shape of the deck on the other side of the pit so that the PCs leap right onto it.

These types of approaches allow me to use typical traps like pits and keep them interesting.
Two words to add to all the above: Gelatinous Cube.
 



Clint_L

Hero
In the general sense, making a trap is just as "hard" or "easy" as making anything else in the game.


Except the DMs are different.


Sure, most modern DMs love homebrewing their 'perfect' world or other bits and pieces like making a "background". So, sure, you can count that as they make homebrew. But in general, many DMs stick to "safe" homebrew like tweaking things. Mostly it's just taking the offical rules, and changing them a bit.

To keep traps at the "level" of the PCs....the only option is to homebrew beyond the rules. And a lot of DMs are unwilling to do that.
There's a sense of "kids these days..." coming from your statements, and I just don't see it. I've been playing D&D since 1979, and I've been a teacher for decades. I run the D&D club at my high school. If anything, I find the kids more inventive than we were, not less. One of their campaigns is set in the present day, for example, so you can imagine how much home brewing that involves! They borrow bits from other TTRPGs (and play way more than my friends and I did), they have a ton of opinions about 5e, many of them critical, and they are very interested in the history of D&D. One of the DMs has an encyclopedic knowledge of AD&D (1e), which she plays with her dad.

I can't speak to your experience with younger players. But mine is leads me to very different conclusions.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
A pit, by itself, it generally a waste.
And here I thought that a pit is generally  for waste.

However, using the pit as a feature of an encounter, rather than the star, can be very rewarding. Here are a few of my common ways of using pit traps:

1.) It sets off an alarm. In addition to the trapped PC taking some damage, the PC will start the encounter off in a space where they'll have to find a quick way out to join the battle.

2.) It springs mid-battle. Like in 1, they have to deal with the situation with the time urgency of combat underway, but unlike in 1.) it can disrupt the combat strategies of the PCs.

3.) It is less of a "trap" and more of a secret door. The PCs easily find the pit trap and avoid it ... but fail to search the bottom of it where there is a concealed or secret entrance. This works especially well when the base of the pit is covered in a opaque liquid and the passage is beneath the liquid.

4.) When the enemy is at the bottom of the pit. It might be something that swallows, petrifies or grabs and runs off with the target via an underground network. Regardless, the idea is that the pit adds elevation and disruption and isolates a PC as part of the encounter.

5.) A favorite: The pit is the distraction. For example, I love to have a mimic take the shape of the deck on the other side of the pit so that the PCs leap right onto it.
6) The pit is occupied by an albino and a torture device that causes ultimate suffering.

7) I saw the illusory pre-pit trick above. But what about just an illusory pit? Hell, it takes PCs ten minutes to go through a door sometimes. Think how long you could delay them by putting a pit-illusion in their way!
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
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.
Also monks can pretty much cakewalk through most of ToH with their immunity to fall damage and poison.
 

At higher levels, pits may not be as much of a trap, but they can still be an important part of terrain. 5e has a lot of ways to push opponents around.

Also, while it may be easy to get around a pit with magic, there's still something to be said about spell slots and resource management. It's not as big of a thing as it used to be, but it's still worth thinking about.
 

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