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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
And with rare exceptions players always have the in-character option of turning back.

Now that we've got the silly extremes out of our systems, a trap that generates effects - dramatic or not - at a remote location can be as simple as tripping a wire here causes a bell to ring somewhere else, alerting the opposition to intruders and allowing them to prepare an ambush. Seems just the sort of defence a wise occupant - whose goal is to capture and-or kill intruders rather than just deter them - would put in a place.
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?
If they avoid the trap they don't learn what it does, which is true of many avoided traps e.g. they might notice and safely avoid a pit and never realize it has dangerous spikes at the bottom...or treasure...or a Gelatinous Cube...

If they set off the trap and know they did so, and its effects are remote, they are left wondering what if anything setting off the trap did; which if nothing else adds to the suspense and confusion. Beyond that, from their perspective the adventure continues apparently as normal.
Is all the fun private and in the head of the GM as he snickers privately to himself at how he got the players?
This seems a very negative take.
 

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There's a sense of "kids these days..." coming from your statements, and I just don't see it.
Well, it's been a true thing for D&D forever and effects gamers of all ages.

There has always been a split between gamers that felt they had to follow the printed mechanics exactly, and could only add slight changes to what was listed.

And the other gamers, that have no problem leaving the rules on the page and just creating whatever they wish.

And D&D has always had a problem with this. Most editions somewhat say the DM can add things, but then offer very little support. And D&D has always had a huge problem of scaling up. Sure characters, monsters and spells 'scale up'...but everything else in the game is mostly left behind.

5E just barely covers some boring, dull, basic pit traps. They don't even bother to add in one or two per tier or power level. No example is given for as a pit trap for 10th level or 15th level. And you will find few pit traps in other books. And there are plenty of both mundane, magical or other pit traps. Though, sure, WotC would say they don't have "room" for anything more in the books. And even a "Dungeonscape" book or even a "Book of traps" is simply out of the question for them. And more so they are uninterested in adding nearly any 'rules of scale' to the D&D game.

And this view fits in just fine with most of the D&D gamer base. If asked if they want a book of traps, they will quickly say "no". For many gamers traps are a rare thing to even be used in the gameplay and for many they are not part of the game at all.
 

Clint_L

Hero
I've never seen a campaign that didn't use traps - I seldom see a game that doesn't use some kind of trap or puzzle to challenge players. And they are all through every adventure published by WotC and...everyone really. Would I buy a book of traps from WotC, though? Probably not, because all those traps would become common knowledge very quickly. But I do scour the internet for interesting trap ideas, and I bet a lot of other people do too.
 

greg kaye

Explorer
Traps are basically hazards that are hidden but, in cases such as of an opponent guarding highground, the hazard can be all around. Tabletop RPGs, by definition, don't lend themselves to relief but the placement of edges, ledges and potential falls can greatly increase player and GM options.

Feather fall can provide a great means of mitigating falls, but ropes can provide a great way to prevent them. Mountain climbing best practice confirms it, and this just relates to potential hazards that can potentially be seen.

Other than using the likes of mage hand or unseen servant, my favourite technique is for two strong characters behind the scout to hold either end of long rope and for the scout to use a second rope with a slip knot to tie the mid-section of the long rope to a belt. Something like this might also give some protection from charm-type effects.
 

nevin

Hero
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.
find the path is one of the most dangerous spells for traps. It finds the most direct route. Not the safest route not the route free of traps but the most direct route. And if your clever players decde to use it to find the most direct route to the next trap it doesn't show them the trap they still have to detect it to avoid it.
 

nevin

Hero
Traps are basically hazards that are hidden but, in cases such as of an opponent guarding highground, the hazard can be all around. Tabletop RPGs, by definition, don't lend themselves to relief but the placement of edges, ledges and potential falls can greatly increase player and GM options.

Feather fall can provide a great means of mitigating falls, but ropes can provide a great way to prevent them. Mountain climbing best practice confirms it, and this just relates to potential hazards that can potentially be seen.

Other than using the likes of mage hand or unseen servant, my favourite technique is for two strong characters behind the scout to hold either end of long rope and for the scout to use a second rope with a slip knot to tie the mid-section of the long rope to a belt. Something like this might also give some protection from charm-type effects.
nah your strength based character with a strong heavy metal pole and a hay bale or something else heavy enough to trigger them. works better than find traps and it doesn't wear out.
 

Celebrim

Legend
find the path is one of the most dangerous spells for traps. It finds the most direct route. Not the safest route not the route free of traps but the most direct route. And if your clever players decide to use it to find the most direct route to the next trap it doesn't show them the trap they still have to detect it to avoid it.

Depends on your edition of the game. In 1e AD&D, what the spell does is somewhat ambiguous from the text, but by 2nd edition and 3rd edition the spell is arguably the most powerful spell in the game - or at least fighting for that title with Wish/Miracle. Later editions of the spell make clear that Finding the Path includes knowing how to step over tripwires and around other traps and even things like knowing the passwords to say to disarm a glyph of warding.

5e in an effort to tone down casters took the spell so far in the other direction that it is practically useless as all it does in 5e is tell you how to get somewhere you've already been, a situation that is so circumstantial as to cause the spell to probably never be used except in the rare case of teleport traps or chute traps or other old school "get lost in the dungeon traps". And even then, probably have better things to use a 6th level spell slot on.
 

nevin

Hero
in earlier editions it was presumed gods were greek style gods and didn't know everything. Your god can only show the path if they know the path. Now if your DM assumes a more modern creator of the universe style god then yeah it's a stupid powerful spell.
 

I've never seen a campaign that didn't use traps - I seldom see a game that doesn't use some kind of trap or puzzle to challenge players. And they are all through every adventure published by WotC and...everyone really.
A lot of players and many DM don't like traps as they are "not fun". They are too hard to detect in the game, not by mechanics but by game play. Assuming a player has the ability to suspect a trap might be near, they have to pay attention in the game and more often be immersed and engaged in the game. A lot of players don't want to put that much work and effort into the game for something non combat. And a lot of GMs feel the same way.

All too often traps are just a tiny amount of pointless damage or are just pointlessly avoided with a roll anyway. Like "ok, DM my character falls in the pit trap and takes five damage...whatever...is there a monster to fight yet?" Or "The pit trap has a DC of 10.....yawn...I roll a 25 so my character just flies over it like Superman". And once you do some pointless pit traps more then five times....many would say just delete them from the game as meaningless anyway.
 

nevin

Hero
/nod......I honestly gave up on most traps years ago. I was running a campaign and the party went down into a dungeon crawl and I'd just got a fantastic book of traps. (still have it). I threw really great ones they had to get through to get into the dungeon. BUT THEN......the came up with a script for every door, every hallway and I nearly lost my mind. when I say it was taking them 15 minutes to check each door i'm sure I'm being generous. All they did after the first bit of adrenalin was slow the game down to a snails pace because I'd made the party paranoid. An occasional trap will be fun and catch em by surprise. Otherwise they just drag the game down badly.
 

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