How To Use Traps To Make Combat More Intense

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 11, 2011


Paladin – What was that?

Rogue – Sounds like you stepped on a pressure plate.

Paladin – I thought you were keeping an eye out for traps?

Rogue – So I missed one.

Paladin – Is that supposed to make me feel more comfortable about the situation?

Rogue – Honestly, how did you get this far in life? Hold still, let me look… I said hold still, stop with the squirming.

<clank … clank … clank>

Paladin / Rogue – What was that?

Cleric – I have a bad feeling about this.

Traps have the ability to make mundane or otherwise quaint combat encounters brim with excitement and the unexpected. They also have the ability to overwhelm your players and slow down play. The key to using traps to enhance your combats is all in the execution.

Don’t Be Predictable

Chest traps. Door traps. Pit traps. These all have one thing in common, they are predictable. They are the base model of all traps and the first place your players are looking. Of course there is nothing wrong with using these traps, just don’t use them all the time. After all you don’t want your players to ever stop looking for traps on any door they enter, even if you only trap 1 in 100.

What you don’t want is your players picking up on a pattern. If  you only use a variation of these standard traps your players will always be on the lookout for them. As a result, the use of traps will fail to make combat the interesting, dynamic and dangerous situation that it should be. Instead combat will be routine and predictable. This is the last thing that you want.

Traps by their very nature should not be predictable, instead they should be spontaneous. Traps should inject an element of surprise into combat, your players shouldn’t see them coming.

Let Them Know About The Trap

The room is large with a domed ceiling reaching 40 feet in height. There is a stale acrid odour in the room, as you venture further into the room it becomes close to unbearable. The room is dimly lit by torches that hang in sconces on the perimeter walls. Dominating the room is a large dais in the center. An altar is enshrined on the dais, seemingly made of pure gold. Beyond the dais is a large ornamental throne. Your high perception allows you to notice a lever on the floor next the the throne. As you scan the room you see no noticeable exit…

This is a simple description of a room a group of adventurers might encounter. A question your players might be asking is what does the lever do? Does it open a secret door allowing the party to advance beyond this room or is it a trap? It might actually be both, but in this case it is a trap.

The beauty of introducing a trap this way is that both your players and your NPCs can trigger it. Anyone who pulls the lever sets off the trap. The advantage the NPCs hold is they know where the trap is and can set it off at the most opportune moments.

Keep Them Guessing

What happens when one of your players sets off what they think is a trap and nothing happens? The get nervous, they might dismiss it, but in the back of their mind they will be waiting for the ball to drop. What happens when a second unexpected effect occurs? Perhaps a noise that is out of place or an unexpected effect.

Drop all of this into an active combat situation and your players are going to be on their toes. Suddenly no square is safe and everything is suspect. Rather than your players simply concerning themselves with the combat and defeating their foes, they now need to be extra aware of the environment.

Are traps part of your normal encounter design? How do you use them to keep your players guessing? Do you find traps an effective element of combat or do your players constantly avoid them?

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1 Alton February 11, 2011 at 10:20 am

Hey Wimwick,

Great article as usual. I love the concept of the party seeing the traps. It is like having a monster sitting casually on a chair in the center of the room with no backup. You have no idea what is going to happen.

I find I am a dud at writing adventures, cause I still don’t understand the mechanics of traps. As much as I read, it is one of those concepts I still have a lot of trouble grasping. I think I will try to post about it at some point to force me to understand it by writing about it.

2 Jacob Dieffenbach February 11, 2011 at 10:32 am

Even in 3.5 I think I never used a trap that wasn’t obvious, or if it wasn’t obvious it was at least more of an encounter than it was a one-hit “gotcha!”.

My personal favorite has got to be an empty room with what appears to be a dangling humanoid shape, it looks like a corn doll made of paper or flesh or whatever the dungeon theme is at the time. Touching the doll or the walls of the room (which have runes on them) turns the doll into the most terrifying monster the toucher can face at that level–so a warforged touches it, it’s a rust monster; a fighter touches it it’s a mind flayer, or something.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a group NOT either poke the doll or poke the runes. I don’t even think putting a sign that says “THIS IS A TRAP” would deter them in the slightest.

So, when I insert a trap, they’re all like that: the CORE of the encounter, all monsters swing on the axis of the trap (magnetic corridor? Once you strip off your gear there’s a flesh golem; easy floor tile trap? Giant scorpions attack you while you’re on the trapped tiles.) I don’t think I’ve ever done gotcha traps (one exception, I meticulously converted the Tomb of Horrors to 4E; that has plenty of gotcha traps =P), though if I do set them up they’ll probably make sense (like, not a trapped broom closet mid-dungeon, but maybe plenty of traps at the dungeon entrance).

I think making sense in placement and theme is very, very important. Players should not be making Perception checks for traps even as they approach the lair of the dragon or mind flayer or whatever; that doesn’t make sense, why wouldn’t the dungeon designer put those traps closer to the entrance, the choke point?

Setting up traps THAT way, only as choke points around entrances, not only adds to the realism of the dungeon (“realism”), but this very realism means your players can know when to stop searching for traps (a couple rooms in) because, well, it makes sense to stop searching for traps.

Though, idea for dungeon masters out there: have doors in your dungeon that lead to dead-end trap rooms with no loot, and have scrawled in the native tongue of the inhabitants “This room is a booby trap; do not enter.” Not only will it reward players who know Goblin or Deep Speech or whatever, but when the party reads the sign that says “Ish kut vas irthaken” and enters the trap room, they’ll be super-excited at their cleverness the next time they find a door marked “ish kut vas irthaken” and know to avoid it.

Of course, then the mind-games begin… players thinking there’s awesome loot and that’s why there’s a sign so they enter anyway…

Mind games, man; once the DM starts them, the player start touching each trap and using Perception checks on each room. If you want to avoid that sort of feel to your game, you can’t encourage your players to doing that with mind games…

3 Wimwick February 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm

@ Alton
Traps can be tricky. I’ve created many encounters with traps and for various reasons they don’t get set off. If you can make your players curious enough they can do the work for you. Just keep experimenting and you’ll find a solution that works for you.

@ Jacob Dieffenbach
Mind games can be dangerous and can detract from the rest of the encounter. Your players are so focused on the potential for traps they miss all kinds of other clues or pieces of information.

I do like the “Ish kut vas irthaken” idea. Good stuff that.

4 Rico February 12, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I liked the article (and I would love it if players roll-played dialog like that) but I’m a little confused. You write that traps “have the ability to overwhelm your players and slow down play.” Then after discussing how to use traps (ostensibly to avoid that) you write, “Suddenly no square is safe and everything is suspect. Rather than your players simply concerning themselves with the combat and defeating their foes, they now need to be extra aware of the environment.” It seems to me that primarily what this will accomplish is to slow down play.

5 Wimwick February 13, 2011 at 8:05 am

@ Rico
It may or may not slow down play. It all depends on how the players react. What it will do is increase the sense of drama and danger during the combat encounter. This will hopefully make your encounter more memorable because of the danger, the time factor will be less important. While I’m all for speeding up combat in 4e, I won’t do it just to get to the next combat encounter quickly. My most memorable encounter was played at GenCon last year and lasted over 4 hours. Read about it here What Makes An Encounter Legendary?.

6 mbeacom February 13, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Awesome. Love it. I will do this asap!

7 Sunyaku February 14, 2011 at 12:28 am

I ran an improv game over the holidays and my group of new-ish DnD players entered a temple discovered recently by miners. They knew they weren’t the first group to have gone in, and when they entered, they found bodies of the last party littered about in various places. My intent was to make it very obvious where the traps in the room probably were, but that didn’t help prevent the players from triggering EVERY TRAP IN THE ROOM. Lolz. And it wasn’t even all at once, it was systematic failure. 😛

I guess if you make things incredibly obvious, sometimes people will think there’s no danger at all. In this case, I think the party may have falsely assumed that the traps would only go off once, and had already been triggered by the previous party.

8 Domanar November 5, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Wonderful! I loved it! I´m so going to use it.

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