I rarely use traps… It is difficult to use them without it feeling like you’re attacking the player. It just feels cheap to have characters suddenly fall into a pit, have an arrow trap shoot at their heads seemingly out of nowhere, and have a net trap restrain them with no warning. Yeah, they may get a saving throw, but it feels like the DM is out to kill the characters when traps are handled poorly.
There are a couple ways I have used traps without these bad vibes, but you have to be mindful and do a bit of planning ahead of time.
The Oddly Empty Space & The Far Too Appealing
‘Congrats on slaying the yuan-ti guys! So as you continue down the slithering tunnels you enter a massive 40 foot diameter chamber. In the center of the circular chamber is a stone pedestal with a bright ruby the size of your face resting at its center. The soft rosy glow emanating from the stone invites you to take it.’
There is something incredibly unsettling about large empty spaces, especially those in threatening places. The players will immediately begin questioning what else they see, if there is anything written on the pedestal, and maybe even pull out detect magic to figure out why the ruby is glowing. If they have already encountered a large group of combatants and enter a room with absolutely nothing in it, it should give the adventurers pause to question the purpose of such a space at least.
Also, if something seems too good to be true it probably is. If you place a ruby the size of the player’s head in a room for a bunch of low level characters to discover they should be wondering why nobody has grabbed it before them. This second guessing is a very human defense mechanism and we as DMs can use it to signal to the players that something is fishy and maybe should figure out what’s going on before touching the appealing treasure.
The Bones of the Fallen & The Obvious
‘You turn a corner and see a 40 foot long corridor with gashes cutting horizontally down the hall. At the end of the passage is a mosaic image of a screaming boar. At your feat are the bones of several dead adventurers. Their limbs seemed to have been torn from their body at some point. What do you do.’
The easiest way to signal that there is a trap is by putting dead creatures around who fell into it. If putting a dismembered corpse in a room doesn’t make your players concerned for their safety then nothing will. It also can hint at the kind of threat they are facing. This is one of the easiest ways to utilize both the underutilized medicine and investigation skill checks.
If the dead bodies, damaged walls, and forbidding atmosphere aren’t enough to make your players a bit cautious then hopefully putting a giant aggressive object in the room will illuminate the danger they’re in. Is it a fire trap? Have a dragon facing the heroes with an open maw looking as if it intends to attack! Is the hallway trapped with scythes of death meant to cut the adventurers down to size? Have a frieze of a laughing demon at the end of the hall seeming to enjoy some sadistic pleasure. Having something unsettling and off-putting will hopefully make the heroes pause and maybe look into plausible threats.
What I Avoid
‘As you open the door a poison needle pricks your finger causing you to slip into unconsciousness. Then the floor gives out beneath you causing your body to fall 30 feet into the darkness. That’ll be 56 damage.’
‘Um, so I’ll drink my potion of greater healing I guess….’
How I hint at traps is very important, but it is actually a bit limiting. Here are a few traps I never use, or if I do how I adjust them to make them less awful. I can’t stand when players are completely blind sided by a trap. It denies them the ability to problem solve and at least try to circumvent the threat. Considering that traps are only ‘fun’ to the players when given the opportunity to thwart the threat, having a trap only be perceived if the player has a passive perception score of X or if they specifically check under Y is a surefire way to have your trap go unnoticed until the players set it off. This’ll cause the players to believe unconsciously that you are out to get them. Don’t do that to yourself or them. At least hint to the players in some way that there is a threat there without some minimum being required. That way the player can choose to either look into it further or ignore it altogether. Either way though its on them in that case.
My most hated of the gotcha traps is the pit trap. It is built to be a surprise and there really isn’t a good way to hint that this one is there without giving the whole thing away. I gave up on using them as traps a long time ago, and instead make them obvious and threatening. Having an open pit in the middle of combat is unsettling, but it can be a useful tool for the minotaur to shove hapless adventurers down into. Alternatively, a pit trap in a hallway is nothing, just jump over it, but if you make the pit trap 20 feet wide now the players have to think about what they need to do to get across the chasm.