RPG Evolution: The Pit Problem

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

art-6574883_1280.jpg

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.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


log in or register to remove this ad



ad_hoc

(they/them)
If PCs are using their high level slots to get past something that sounds like an obstacle to me.

On the general topic of traps I find it fun to always involve a decision of some kind.

If the PCs naturally avoid the trap that's great.

But if not I still give them an option on what to do.

For example, you step forward and the stone you are standing on depresses and then clicks. What do you do?

That is more fun to me than just having them take some damage.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Huh. Are traps supposed to be fair? Guess I messed that one up.

Well, define "fair".

Traps are supposed to be fun. Trap design is real passion of mine in part because popular examples like Grimtooth have given us so many examples of extremely poor trap design that have given traps a bad name and deprived an important trope in fantasy gaming of the fun that it should be inspiring.

The less fair the trap is, the less interesting that it is. The ultimate in bad trap design is a difficult to detect trap that immediately deducts a very large amount of hit points from one or more party members. This is pointless, and usually comes out of either poor imagination, copying poor examples of traps, or else DM ego gaming where they get most of their enjoyment out of "gotcha" moments where they do big things to the PCs and feel impressive doing it.

Good trap design telegraphs the danger somewhat. Good traps are avoidable. They rely on reverse logic as little as possible.

Additionally, good traps involve the entire party in a scenario where everyone has to work together to overcome the problem. Good traps rarely do large amounts of initial damage. Instead, they put one or more members of the party in a predicament that they need to be rescued from. Good traps snowball. The theme of a good trap is usually, "Just when you think it can't get any worse, it does." To succeed in that they need to do small packages of damage while ramping up the threat over time. That gives parties the ability to extricate themselves and save resources if they are clever both before and after the trap goes off, while still allowing for the "We're so screwed!" moments if in fact the part falls into the trap.

Killing PC's is never the goal. Scaring the party without actually killing it and forcing expenditure of resources and teamwork in the same way a good combat does is the goal.

The easiest thing in the world to design is unavoidable death traps. The resources of the GM are infinite. It's not the size of the trap that matters, but how it engages the party.

One of my favorite published traps is a pit trap in I3 where falling into the pit does almost no damage
....because you land in quicksand
...and the quicksand is filled with skeletons that animate and attack you.

Traps that go "BOOM! Take 86 damage" are boring.
 
Last edited:

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
If PCs are using their high level slots to get past something that sounds like an obstacle to me.

On the general topic of traps I find it fun to always involve a decision of some kind.

If the PCs naturally avoid the trap that's great.

But if not I still give them an option on what to do.

For example, you step forward and the stone you are standing on depresses and then clicks. What do you do?
A type of trap that doesn't get enough love is the one where you set it off here but the Bad Thing happens over there, and may or may not be noticed later or ever by the PCs.

Example: the stone you're standing on depresses and then clicks. In the here-and-now moment for the PCs, nothing happens (except maybe some paranoia). However, somewhere else a wall moves so as to block an easy passage to where the PCs need to go and in so doing reveals a much more hazardous route. Even more fun if the PCs have a "treasure map" that shows the easy route but not the hazardous one, and eventually come to realize their map doesn't agree with what they're seeing as they progress.

This can also be reversed: a badly-hidden "trap" in fact reveals an easier route if set off, but if the PCs avoid setting it off then they have to deal with all the other hazards.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Killing PC's is never the goal. Scaring the party without actually killing it and forcing expenditure of resources and teamwork in the same way a good combat does is the goal.

The easiest thing in the world to design is unavoidable death traps. The resources of the GM are infinite. It's not the size of the trap that matters, but how it engages the party.

One of my favorite published traps is a pit trap in I3 where falling into the pit does almost no damage
....because you land in quicksand
...and the quicksand is filled with skeletons that animate and attack you.
Sounds like a killer trap to me unless the quicksand is shallow enough that a PC - and the skeletons, for that matter - could stand on hard ground beneath it; which to me renders the quicksand almost pointless.
Traps that go "BOOM! Take 86 damage" are boring.
If you're running a system like mine where taking that much damage risks having your items and possessions get destroyed, big-boom traps can pose a serious problem far beyond the simple damage. Just ask the characters in my game who found, the hard way, the lightning trap in Dark Tower......

That was one expensive afternoon for those characters.
 

Voadam

Legend
My favorite pit Trap was in a Pathfinder 1e game. The party was fighting a bunch of evil fey and saw a tiny evil flying fey hit and run and fly into a 10 foot diameter hut to go up onto a mantle perch where it had cover from ranged attacks. The heavily armored inquisitor (inquisitor/fighter?) without hesitation drew her sword and charged into the hut to swat the thing . . . and immediately crashed through the branches covering the floor of the hut that concealed the pit. The inquisitor was five feet shy of being in reach of the fey when she fell so she did not even get her attack off.

Not a random pit in a hallway, but a specific interactive bait and lure strategy set up that the inquisitor fell for and walked (charged) right into.
 

Voadam

Legend

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.
I would disagree here, I don't think these are generally going to help you to see most traps better than a first level fighter looking around.

Clairvoyance and scrying will show you one specific area (and for scrying it is only the area around a target creature) as if you were looking in there, which does not reveal any non-obvious traps. Arcane eye will let you look ahead (but not into rooms with closed doors) in scouting for up to an hour but will also not make the wizard any better at spotting hidden traps.

A casting of Trueseeing will for an hour show you an illusion covering a pit trap but not really be helpful on traps not hidden by illusions.

"This spell gives the willing creature you touch the ability to see things as they actually are. For the duration, the creature has truesight, notices secret doors hidden by magic, and can see into the Ethereal Plane, all out to a range of 120 feet."

TRUE SIGHT
A creature with truesight can, out to a specific range, see in normal and magical darkness, see invisible creatures and objects, automatically detect visual illusions and succeed on saving throws against them, and perceives the original form of a shapechanger or a creature that is transformed by magic. Furthermore, the creature can see into the Ethereal Plane.

Detect magic as a 1st level ritual will generally give you more chances to ferret out traps in suspicious circumstances as it will be recastable as a ritual and many D&D traps have a magical component of some type. But as a 1st level spell it is not really level dependent for it kicking in.
 

Celebrim

Legend
A type of trap that doesn't get enough love is the one where you set it off here but the Bad Thing happens over there, and may or may not be noticed later or ever by the PCs.

Traps that create dramatic effects at a remote distance are one of the more certain ways to create inescapable death traps if you are ever inclined to do so, in that by hiding information from the PC's you can create situations where they are vastly in over their heads before they realize it. Again, GMs have infinite resources.

Example: the stone you're standing on depresses and then clicks. In the here-and-now moment for the PCs, nothing happens (except maybe some paranoia). However, somewhere else a wall moves so as to block an easy passage to where the PCs need to go and in so doing reveals a much more hazardous route. Even more fun if the PCs have a "treasure map" that shows the easy route but not the hazardous one, and eventually come to realize their map doesn't agree with what they're seeing as they progress.

This can also be reversed: a badly-hidden "trap" in fact reveals an easier route if set off, but if the PCs avoid setting it off then they have to deal with all the other hazards.

Let's assume for now that the PC's do not even fact ever notice or figure out what happened - which is one of the outcomes you called out in your thesis. How is scenario of avoiding or not avoiding the trap then fun for the players? What fun is actually happening in either scenario? Is all the fun private and in the head of the GM as he snickers privately to himself at how he got the players?
 

Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top