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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


First Post
I plan to pack a wheelbarrow with non-combat adventuring stuff: pickaxe, shovel, rope, crowbar, grappling hook, climbing gear, spikes, food, water, whatever. Push it in front of you. If there is a pit trap, it falls in. Seems like you are unlikely to fall in. Use another rope to lower yourself down and pull up the gear. Use it to haul out the loot.

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