Traps As More Than Something To Disable

In many of my experiences with old school gaming, traps have generally been seen as things to disable and get past, or as things that are meant to do damage to the party if they aren’t careful. This definition blurs a little as the genre changes from fantasy or dungeon crawl to something more modern or broad in play style, but often a trap remains something you find with a search check and then disarm. Traps can be oh so much more.

What is a Trap?
According to our friend Wikipedia (
A trap is a device or tactic intended to harm, capture, detect, or inconvenience a human or animal intruder, or animal pest or game. Traps may be physical objects, such as cages or snares, or metaphorical concepts.

Ok. That’s pretty straightforward, let’s work within that definition. There are a lot of ways that you can use traps in your game without making them feel like they are just a roll and a check to bypass them.

Traps as Possible Intros to Combat

This one has definitely been done before (kobolds, cough, kobolds) but it works well. A minor trap might alert and bring about a combat scene. Think about a modern action film or spy movie. The lasers surrounding a priceless artifact about to be lifted by Catherine Zeta Jones or Lupin can definitely be considered a trap. The trap doesn’t have any way to be easily bypassed (shutting off the electricity probably triggers the alarm as well) and while it can be bypassed by some incredible and slinky movement, it will probably call forth a slew of guards. The option to avoid combat is definitely on the table with this one, but instead of a single roll to disarm it becomes a series of plotted movements that engage the players’ minds in determining how to bypass.

The Key: The key to using a trap like this is to make sure the players know ahead of time the consequences it can bring. Whether its lasers in a modern setting, easily visible bells that are hooked up to ancient machinery, strings tied across the way or any other type of easily visible device, it should be known that this might bring about nasties to fight.

Traps as Terrain Modifiers

Indiana Jones walks down the corridor, unthinking as to what might be hidden in the walls or underneath the floor, when all of a sudden he hears a click. Suddenly the floor before him falls away, the floor after him falls away. Now he is left with only columns to jump from or some vines that LOOK sturdy enough. Traps like this make the terrain suddenly change. A wooden floor falls away requiring some quick jumping to avoid falling into a bottomless pit, or rocks fall behind the party stopping them from going forward.

Maybe there are more changes at hand though. Perhaps falling into the pit doesn’t lead to death or damage, but to a new part of the place being explored. Maybe the terrain modification provides some unique way to progress onwards. Throwing ropes between statues and making a rope bridge might be interesting or suddenly finding yourself on a series of falling rocks that must be jumped between in order to get to the door that leads to safety.

The Key: Terrain modifier traps have to significantly change how the characters move about. Think of any side scrolling video game, or the pinnacle of unique movement games: Prince of Persia. The key to making a trap like this fun is making sure the players know that they can still get out of the trap, but that it will require some quick action. Let the players know they can get out, and give them time to think of how their characters would do it. Also, having some visual aids to make sure everyone is on the same page helps.

Traps as Riddles – Plot Givers

Traps that make use of archaic riddles have been around a long time, but they can also be used as a way to give plot. The riddle just has to contain elements of the plot. A chessboard trap might have archaic sayings about Queen Anne’s only escape route, and the small pawn she carried with her. Solving the puzzle may require the players to put the queen and the pawn that is smaller than all the others on into a receptacle off the board, thus opening the doorway out of the catacombs under the cathedral and into daylight. This might also clue the players into the fact that the previous queen escaped with a baby and her bloodline may still be alive.

The Key: If you are going to use a trap that is a riddle make sure that the clues are READILY available to the players. Another place where visual aids come into play. As a Game Master the clues seem bright and vibrant to your mind, you’ve had them all laid out or developed them yourself, but you might have to give your players some help in getting them. Things the characters might pick out logically aren’t going to be picked out by the players. If you are interweaving bits of plot into the riddles or puzzles, then make sure those bits are bolded out from even the rest of the clues. There is a reason that movies such as National Treasure have such seemingly easy riddles and seemingly blatant clues. The audience has to get them if they are going to follow the plot.

Traps as Quest Givers

Not far into the ultimate dungeon, the group encounters a door they can’t get past, no matter what. It has an oddly shaped key and strange runes. Deciphering the language the players find that the key of ages (or whatever trite fantasy name you want) goes here. Other markings indicate that the Key was last being held by monks in a temple on the far side of the world . . . Now the players need to go find the key of ages and a whole new quest has begun. I’ve seen these kinds of things implemented in one or two adventures before, but always with some in-game reveal that it will happen. Removing the in-game reveal can help foster the feeling that not everything is centered around the characters.

The Key: Be careful with implementation, as the players, having just geared up to tackle a dungeon, find themselves redirected. A little preface might not hurt. Saying “You guys found the ultimate dungeon, but you’re not quite there . . .” will help prevent any harshness that might be encountered after the reveal. Also, make sure that the characters have enough information that they can piece together the fact that their princess is in another castle, for now.

Traps as Ending Points to Sessions

Remember the old batman TV show with Adam West? Or every episode of Danger Mouse, ever? It always ended with a cliffhanger, then SAME BAT TIME, SAME BAT CHANNEL. If you find yourself getting close to end time and want to leave the group with a feeling of dread about the fate of their characters, then set off a seemingly inescapable trap right at the end and pause before the characters can do anything about it.

The Key: Be ready for your players to balk at this. Stopping in the middle of the action is sometimes considered a cardinal sin. The players will be thinking and worrying about the fate of their characters from the end of game right up to the beginning of the next game session. However, the players will be thinking and worrying about the fate of their characters from the end of game right up to the beginning of the next game session. Find me something that builds a sense of dread better than that, well aside from the game dread that is.

Traps as the Entire Dungeon

To leave off with, here is a final interesting idea for a trap. The entire dungeon. Imagine a giant clock tower where the entire building is a trap and the characters are running around inside of it ala Tomb raider. They have to move through the floors and areas, looking for the appropriate pieces and then having to destroy or block certain parts to disable it before it blows up or eats the town. Maybe the heroes are shrunk down and are disabling regular traps from the inside, or the only way to disable the mad scientist’s robot is from the inside out.

The Key: With this kind of trap you have to make sure that the players know the only way to defeat it is through the insides, and that things have to be done in a certain order. It’s almost a social contract issue. You might have to provide some reason why it can’t just be blown up or destroyed though. Maybe it has a shield around it that can’t be breached, maybe it suffers from premature explodulation or perhaps it rebuilds itself and repairs any external damage, requiring you to get to the core.

The biggest point of this article, and the moral that I hope gets taken away from it, is that traps can be so much more interactive than they commonly are. Look at how terrain and traps function in movies and video games, then ask yourself if a 5d10 lightning trap, or automated machine gun is really that interesting. Does it seem as fun to just make a disable trap check to get past a trap? So what other kinds of traps can you suggest? Any really interesting traps you’ve used?

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John Arcadian is a writer, gamer, art director, web designer, crafter, and kilt-wearer. You can find more of his writings on gaming over at For web-design projects, check out
  1. Matthew J. Neagley     | Reply

    I’ve been looking forward to this one since I saw it’s title on the queue, and you certainly haven’t disappointed. These are all fantastic ideas.

    And how appropriate that you’ve posted this on Friday the 13th, the trappiest day of the year!

  2. Scott Martin     | Reply

    I like the idea of the trap as a quest giver, but understand that could be frustrating. I wonder if adding a door like this to the bottom of a dungeon [to as yet unexplored regions beyond] would be a good way to enjoy a dungeon but also set up the next.

  3. itliaf     | Reply

    Judging by the heated debate on yesterday’s post, I call a grievous omission: the Ciechanowski Rhetorical trap

    The latest Dungeon adventure to go up takes a single trap theme–The expanding wall of liquid that you definitely don’t want to touch–and builds an entire adventure out of it. So there’s the race to save bystanders from encroaching wall of ooze, the fight to the top of a room filling with ooze, the tunnel fight where you shut off the flow of ooze, and shifting platforms floating in a lake of the ooze. I am hard pressed to think of another theme that can supply so many scenarios, but its an interesting and timely example of ‘the trap is the dungeon’

    @scott: I second the idea of a quest puzzle being the end of the dungeon level. That way the PCs have accomplished their minor goal, and have an interim quest of information gathering in order to solve the puzzle.

  4. JohnnFour     | Reply

    Great article John! I especially like the traps-as-terrain idea. Another key for this type might be that it adds a fun or useful tactical element. PCs can use it against foes, foes can use it against PCs, it provides excellent cover until triggered….etc.

  5. Toxic_Rat     | Reply

    From an adventure that I’m working on, with a trap that is a bit different:
    The PC’s pass the following areas in order. The distance between W-10 and W-11 is about 30 feet.

    W-9 Concealed Golems: Two well concealed clay golems are hidden behind a brick façade. The false walls can be found with a DC-25 search check. These have been programmed to break through the wall and attack anyone trapped behind the portcullis trap.

    W-10 Portcullis Trap: There is a 15% cumulative chance per PC passing under that the portcullis will fall, trapping PC’s on the other side. Once the trap is sprung, the golems from W-9 are released with orders to destroy anyone trapped behind the portcullis on the far side. Anyone else on the near side is ignored, even if they attack the golems. The gate can be lifted with a DC-16 STR check and is a full round action.

    W-11 Illusionary Fountain: An illusion is in effect in this area. The PC’s believe that the fountain is a healing fountain unless they make a DC-14 WILL save to disbelieve the illusion. A PC that makes the save only sees a normal fountain. Drinking the water will break the illusionary effect. The fountain has no other effect.

  6. John Arcadian     | Reply

    @Matthew J. Neagley – Thanks Matt! I was going to trawl the net for some good trappy pictures, but ran out of time.

    @Scott Martin – Trap as quest giver is a bit thinking outside the box for the definition of trap. It hinders the party from progressing, and that can definitely raise some heckles. It is definitely a situation that has to be handled with care. The one time I used this I let the party know they weren’t going to make it far into the complex before getting redirected to another place. It kind of wet their whistle and let them understand something BIG was down there, but that they weren’t getting arbitrarily redirected.

    @itliaf – It would look like one large button which, when pushed, would switch the alignments of the party to be in opposition to each other with regards to a previous action undertaken by the party. Half the party would agree with their previous actions, half would disagree, half would be plotting how they would cause conflict in the next session. The rest would worry why there were 3 halfs, and exactly what group they belonged to. 🙂

    @JohnnFour – Thanks Johnn! I like the idea of a trap being something that can be constantly used throughout an encounter. I haven’t played much 4e, but I know it places a lot of emphasis on the tactical advantages of terrain. The more I think about traps, since conceiving this article while watching a trap go off in a new saturday morning cartoon (huntik, I think), the less I like the word. As a term it hass encompassed pretty much any non opponent, non npc encounter. I know encounter has been used as a broad term for situations, and there were a lot of unique “traps” in the 3.5 book of challenges that weren’t typical, but it seems like the word trap really confines. At least in how players and GMs perceive mechanical or terrain encounters.

    Anyone got a better term? I can’t seem to think of one off the top of my head or find an example in an admittedly brief skim-through of the couple of RPG rulebooks within reach.

  7. John Arcadian     | Reply

    @Toxic_Rat – Trap as terrain modification and intro to combat. Very nifty! My question for you is about W11. By what means will the PCs believe its a healing fountain? Will the illusion just make detect magic register it as such, or will it present itself as healing in some way? I avoided talking about magic in this article because it pretty much breaks the mold on traps. Traps with magic can become almost anything. It brings up a whole new set of questions, but it also provides a whole slew of interesting options.

  8. Toxic_Rat     | Reply

    @John Arcadian – Thanks for the compliment. I hadn’t thought much about how to get them to believe it is a magic fountain. I think I will change the description to have the illusion be symbols indicating healing (perhaps the holy symbols of some patron deity), and to have it register some indeterminate magic aura. I’ve not used illusions much in our current adventure, and someone is likely to make the WILL save, so it should generate some interesting debate in the party. It is also possible, however unlikely, that the trap will never be sprung, if the rolls go their way.

    Which brings up another question…do any of us DM’s trigger the trap (even in the avoid save is made) just so that we can see the party deal with the fabulous trap we’ve come up with? We’d never do that, would we….

  9. itliaf     | Reply

    I can’t speak for scott here, but i think the key to avoiding frustrating your players with a plot trap is to make it peripheral to the quest they are on when they find it. Thus in the midst of their princess rescue, they note a door with a complicated puzzle trap blocking it that leads to a new quest altogether. The very nature of the trap could force the group to return to town, do a little research into its nature, or retrieve some triforce(my shorthand for any quest item split into parts) in a few other locations before they can move on.

  10. masterzora     | Reply

    I was thinking about the clock tower example at the end, and, in particular, the “clock tower repairs itself” scenario, and trying to come up with semi-plausible scenarios for why it keeps repairing itself, and it gave me a (I hope) great idea:

    The clock tower is magically isolated in time after the PCs enter. This involves a time loop of some form, and the PCs can actually see other looped versions of themselves. This would be difficult to pull off seeing future versions, but I think it could be potentially done and, possibly, this could be a means of providing clues to puzzles, and, of course, seeing past versions wouldn’t be too difficult. As one might imagine, solving the isolation issue is required to leave the clock tower.

    Feel free to flesh this one out and use it for yourselves, of course >.>

  11. bif     | Reply

    @Scott Martin – I was thinking the same thing, but I might make it peripheral to the main reason the heroes are in the dungeon, and put the door right up front by the dungeon entrance. Think of the suspense it would build: who likes to leave big question marks floating around near their escape routes? You’d have to make it clear to the players that nothing they can do short of finding the Key of Ages will open the door, but as a red herring, emphasise “they” in your sinister GM voice.

    I remember something talked about regarding the West Marches campaign over on Ars Ludi- each major dungeon would have areas that didn’t match its overall difficulty rating, with the idea that players would have reason to come back and retread old ground with their more powerful characters. It meant less ongoing prep work and opportunities for players to show off, followed by a meaty contrast as they entered the previously forbidden areas.

    The ‘key of ages’ door would be a super addition to this idea. Best of all: don’t plan what’s behind the door. By the time the players obtain the key of ages, you and they will have developed so much material on what could be back there that when they finally do open the door, you can make the area personal to them and tie it to events that happened half way around the world. You’d be setting up your own Mystery Box.

    In fact, what if, upon entering the Forbidden Chamber, they find a beautiful bas relief carving on all four walls of a simple chamber. It is clear that it was carved centuries or even ages ago. Starting to their left, the carving tells (in exacting detail) the story of the heroes’ journey to find the Key of Ages. The heroes can actually see the point in the carving where they enter the chamber and read the carving. Just to the right of that, there are a few ‘could be anything’ vague carvings –a tavern, an ogre, a recurring NPC, etc.– , followed by part of the carving crumbled off into a fine dust on the floor, followed by the last bit: a scene of endless suffering at the hands of unspeakable evil. A plinth in the center carries carved runes that read simply ‘prophecy of the fall of man.’ Maybe even have the near future section of the carving crumble because it was disturbed by the heroes’ entrance.

    Or something else. That’s the beauty of it.

  12. John Arcadian     | Reply

    @itliaf – Plot and Quest Giver traps can definitely cause some frustration if not incorporated carefully. It is definitely important to make sure it doesn’t stand in the way of the players progress if it is meant to redirect them somewhere. If it does this should probably be acknowledged out of game by the Game Master.

    Tri-force is great terminology for any item that requires assembly or has multiple parts.

    @masterzora – That’s an awesome twist on the clocktower idea! I can even see the time loops being part of the puzzle. I.E. the PCs have to enable or trigger one device in section 1, then make sure their enabling and disabling of the device in section two occurs at the exact same time, taking into account the time loops. So they might have to figure out the time difference, wait or speed up in certain sections, etc. I might incorporate this into one of the Silvervine Games that I’m running at Origins and Gencon this year.

    @bif – You bring up a lot of very nifty ideas and concepts!
    “who likes to leave big question marks floating around near their escape routes?” Exactly. Something that has to be come back to is definitely going to generate a LOT of mystery and interest. The concept is used to generate content in a lot of video games and to, like you say about the West Marches, generate a lot of re-tread of old areas. What is in that room is going to generate a lot of interest and speculation by the players. As the GM, if you don’t have the room, extra dungeon or whatever else lies beyond the door laid out, you can always pick up clues from the players on what they would like to see. I’m a big fan of modifying the end game based on the players reactions or inserting of new ideas into the story.

  13. masterzora     | Reply

    @John, Balam: Those all sound like potentially great ideas! Though, in cases where the PCs have to help themselves, I’m not sure whether to worry about or relish in the type of PCs who tend to Ruin Everything Forever (i.e. the group I tend to run with). For example, the possible of time paradoxes–interesting effect to be played with, or absolute game ruiner? I could see it going both ways, though I think the interesting effects would have to be planned for, and there are potential game ruiners if the PCs go for something you haven’t accounted for. I mean, this is always an issue, but I think a GM will have to be quicker on their feet than usual in this situation.

    On that note, I think I’ll have to run it sometime, too. And, of course, I’m glad to hear this idea might be incorporated in an Origins or Gencon game. ^__^ It’s like the next best thing to actually being able to attend. 😛

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John Arcadian