Traps to Die For

This blog article has a variety of things that goes through my head when I am creating for my D&D games. With a 2nd level spell called "Find Traps" in the game, an adventurer would feel like traps may be more prominent in the game play. Traps are mentioned a few times in officially published content (Dungeon Master's Guide, Basic Rules, Xanathar's Guide to Everything) but many modules and dungeons simply do not have many or any at all. Unless you are playing Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, traps have seem to dwindled out from classic dungeon crawls. As a DM I understand that having traps everywhere can be annoying, drag on play or even warrant a tpk if your party doesn't have a rouge or a player with great passive perception but I do feel that a well placed trap can still keep players on their toes and bring forth some excitement and make abandoned places more interesting. Something has to protect all this treasure and loot in these abandoned mines right?


Official Content and ruling

The Basic Rules, which is free for anyone to access, has a section on traps that is featured in Chapter 15: Adventure Environments which is identical to Chapter 5: Adventure Environments of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything brings more content to the ideas of simple traps and complex traps to your ttrpg table. Chapter 2 of Xanathar's is "Dungeon Master's Tools" and has a section called "Traps Revisited." It gives more elaborate details into traps from the information that was given in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft also brings a new flavor to traps through the concept of Haunted Traps in "Chapter Four: Horror Adventures."

Traps can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and danger levels. Each trap has a way that it is triggered. Some you must touch or step on it. There can be wires, gears, items to be interacted with or even the classic pressure plate that needs a specific weight like in Indiana Jones' idol scene. It usually takes only one action to trigger a trap. Most traps will come with a description to read to the players along with a DC for seeing the trap and a separate DC

Using traps in a dungeon isn't meant to be show stopping. A Perception check (rolled or passive) can be used against the trap's DC to see if the character notices the trap in passing or in active search. With mechanical traps there is usually something that is "off" to help players be alerted of the danger. This could be holes or slots in the wall where arrows, bolts or blades come out. Maybe the floor tile has a gear sticking out of the cracks or even the strange pile of leaves in the forest floor covering a pit trap.

Once a trap is found there could be an investigation check to see if you know what needs to be done to disarm the trap followed by a Dexterity check (using thieves' tools according to rules as written) to perform the disarming of the thing. Brute force can also be a last resort way of defeating mechanical traps. Magic traps will require an Arcana check to detect and disarm the magic trap.

Traps come at different levels of danger. These are titled "Trap Effects" when looking through published materials. The effect a trap has can be anywhere from setback (minor and lower DC's) to dangerous (lower level characters are in danger of death) or deadly (this trap has a very high DC and is meant to kill who ever triggers it). When reading the trap descriptions and DCs it will become clear which danger level you are potentially throwing at your party.

Mechanical Traps

Mechanical traps are traps that are created in a way to present a danger. These can be pits, arrows or cross bow bolts coming from walls/ceilings, rooms that fill with water or sand, big blades that try to cause harm or any other from of trap that has some sort of trigger that forces mechanical pieces to go to work. These could also be traps that have gas vials that can be broken or shattered to cause damage to the unexpected.

Alarms are considered mechanical traps and can be used to alert the area of intruders. Delays are another thing that you can add to your traps when there are moving parts to try and get a dexterity saving throw to avoid harm.

The Basic Rules section and Chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide has the following trap descriptions for reference:

  • Collapsing Roof

  • Falling Net

  • Pits (4 types)

  • Poison Darts

  • Poison Needle

  • Rolling Sphere (great for Indiana Jones Reenactments)

When designing traps its important to think of purpose. Is it an alarm trap? Is it to slow down or restrain approaching enemies? When we are looking at the level and lethality of traps Xanathar's Guide to Everything gives up levels ranging 1-4, 5-10, 11-16 and 17-20. This goes with the lethality of the trap. There are lots of good tables for reference on page 116.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes:

  • Bear Trap

  • Crossbow Trap

  • Falling Portcullis

  • Fiery Blast

  • Net Trap

  • Pit Trap

  • Poison Needle

  • Sleep of Ages

An example from the Obstacle Course in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage would be the covered pits where a Perception score of 17 or higher is needed to discover it and if a player falls into climbing gear, magic or the Spider Climb trait is needed to get out of its smooth walled pit or be stuck there.

A small note, when looking for more trap ideas I have consulted the 3rd edition DM guide. On pg 115 you read a variety of mechanical traps but its important to note that the DC's are to high (most in the 20's) to be just added into your 5th edition game.

Magical Traps

Magical devices are traps that use spells set up as damage causers to player characters who set them off. Many of the printed materials have glyph of warding and symbol as possible spell traps. Magical traps can also be more complex than mechanical traps. The printed Wizard of the Coast materials (such as Basic Rules) state that some magic traps (such as glyph of warding) can have password that can prevent the trap from activation. Dispel Magic has a chance of disabling most magic traps if someone in your party can cast it. Make sure to reference the trap's description and DCs.

The Basic Rules section and Chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide has the following trap descriptions for reference:

  • Fire-Breathing Statue

  • Sphere of Annihilation

An example from the Obstacle Course in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage would be the Teleportation Traps that is invisible to the senses and cannot be found using detect magic. These traps are designed for splitting the party and can be a devious addition to any dungeon.

When creating your own magical traps it is great to use things with the elements such as lighting, cold or fire. Magical acid and illusion magic is another classic way of making magic traps.

Complex Traps

Rules as written states: "Complex traps work like standard traps, except once activated they execute a series of actions each round. A complex trap turns the process of dealing with a trap into something more like a combat encounter." When it comes to complex traps there is an initiative to be rolled and there are many possible things that one may have to do to do the trap.

This type of trap could be a room filling with sand or water where the levels rise a little every turn. Perhaps the walls are closing in on the room 5ft every turn. These complex traps can also mean the trap could target certain players x amount of times a round and rolling for initiative is the best way to keep track of who is doing what.

The most information about complex traps can be found in Xanathar's Guide to Everything on pages 118-123. There are many things that go into creating and describing a complex trap. These traps have a level and threat like mechanical and a trigger as well but these types of traps have initiative, active elements, dynamic elements, constant elements and countermeasures the players can take all listed out on the pages to help you run it smoothly. As the name states these types of traps are well, more complex.

If we look at Path of Blades for example it is a level 1-4 trap. This trap takes place in a hallway that is 20ft by 160 ft long. I highly recommend mapping out the traps on paper to help you identify all the parts. After 80 ft the floor becomes difficult terrain for a 50 ft length. That is part one; knowing there is difficult terrain coming. The trigger is as soon as a non-undead creature enters the hallway and remains active until the hall is clear. We also need to be aware of the Whirling Blades, the Crushing Pillars, the Rune of Fear that all take place in the initiative order as well.

There are counter measures written for each of these elements and what investigation check DC needs to be made to see each of the elements as well. Even though there are 4 parts of this hallway they all work together to create one massive complex trap.

Examples of these types of traps are listed in Xanathar's Guide:

  • Path of Blades

  • Sphere of Crushing Doom

  • Poisoned Tempest

If you are interested in creating your own complex trap Xanathar's guide goes over how to design one on pages 121-123. It helps you decide what the purpose of your trap is, depending on the DC's and levels you put in what the over all level and lethality of it will be and the elements of your trap. It also talks about where it would make sense to put on a map to make it work well and it encourages you to think outside the box. Maybe your trap expands into more than one room, maybe it causes other things to happen such as the doors around it locks, barriers fall, or perhaps it traps your party to take care of the traps while the enemy gets a chance to approach unnoticed.

Haunted Traps

These types of traps were introduced with Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft as a new threat level to challenge adventurers. These traps were created to be put in areas that have had "negative emotions, tragedy" or have been the site of pure "evil." These types of traps are based on the theme of horror and can be used for haunts of a location or be used to share grim or horrific lore to where your adventurers are exploring.

Rules as written: "Every haunted trap has an emanation, which might be as subtle as a drop in temperature or as overt as an object moving of its own accord. A haunted trap’s emanation occurs before the trap takes effect. A character notices the emanation if their passive Wisdom (Perception) score equals or exceeds 10 + the trap’s Haunt Bonus." This allows you to play with your best Scooby Doo crew or live your Phasmophobia dreams in a ttrpg setting. Besides temp drops (seeing breathe) or moving objects you can also throw in a Ouija board, flickering lights, torches blowing out with no wind in the area or even haunting sounds.

When one of your players notices the haunted trap, its best to roll for initiative, as the players have until the start of their next turn to react. This could be running away, an attempt to disarm the trap or using class features.

Another way to detect a haunted trap is using diving sense or detect good and evil. As haunted traps are not inherently magical, Dispel magic, Detect Magic and Arcana checks do not have any effect on these types of traps.

Many of the traps will have how to disarm them in the description. You can also use Channel Divinity or Remove Curse to take care of the trap. Rules as written states that the trap "makes a saving throw against the character’s spell save DC, adding its Haunt Bonus to the save. On a failure, the trap is disarmed for 24 hours. If the trap fails the save by 10 or more, the trap is disarmed permanently." Also depending on the origin there is a chance that a spell such as "dispel good and evil" could also permanently disarm the trap.

Examples of these traps that can be found in Van Richten's Guide include:

  • Danse Macabre

  • Faceless Malice

  • Icon of the Lower Aerial Kingdoms

  • Morbid Memory

General Dungeon Design

Another great resource that I tend to look at is "Tricks, Empty Rooms, & Basic Trap Design" By Courtney C. Campbell. What I appreciate is a page of tables that give us different room types. I for one don't like when rooms seem to much "the same" or when I am trying to fill space and there does not need to be 5 bedrooms or 6 closets. The table on page 4 and the room descriptors on the following pages help me to build better buildings and dungeons that feel more natural as yes there may be 3 general rooms but they are not all the same. When I create a large "dungeon" such as the ruins of a once grand palace it is nice to have descriptors for a variety of rooms that can add more story to who once lived there before.

As great as it is to just pick different traps and put them anywhere, it is nice when the traps you set make sense for the room. If placing traps in the wrong areas they become obsolete or pointless if they can be walked around. Alarm traps placed in an area far away from where enemies can hear them would be less meaningful than an alarm trap that could bring forward a swarm of enemies.

Choke points and narrow passages are good spots for traps, and can help the enemies/monsters. If you put a trap in a very large room in a random spot there is no guarantee that it will be triggered or make any sense. Also traps can be placed in or around treasure chests and doors. This makes senses as a last line of defense from your adventurer taking the enemies loot or as extra protection as the players make their way towards your BBEG.

Another thing to keep in mind is that not every room has to have something in it. Sometimes you can have "empty" rooms with just some features and furnishings to give clues to what may have once been there. Maybe there are loose masonry that show there was once a trap here that was already set off (with a nice skeleton room decoration to map). Platforms, sconces, paintings, bloodstains, rooms with cobwebs everywhere but in one (trapped) spot, markings, the smell of oil and scorch marks all can be signs of traps, battle activity and can bring as much flavor to a room as a trap itself. In the 3rd edition Dungeon Master's Guide page s 112- 116 talks about Obstacles, hazards, traps and Dungeon Dressings.

Find Traps Spell

Most traps can be found through high perceptions whether it is passive or rolled. Most rogue type characters are the dedicated trap finders of the group. For clerics, druids and rangers there is this spell available to help them discover traps that are either in the dungeon/area within your line of sight up to 120 ft. This detection spell can find magical traps and mechanical traps. If there is an alarm spell or a glyph of warding on a door within that range it can be found using this spell too. The major thing of note is this does not give exact location.

As a DM I let my players use this spell on chests as well to see if a locked chest is trapped. This is not a free for all for being all knowing about traps. Also this spell does not mean the caster will necessarily be able to disable the trap either, just knowing of its general presence. Rules as written the spell duration is instantaneous. This means that the spell is cast in one action and then it is done. If there is traps within line of sight at that moment the spell detects that there is traps, not where they are in the 120ft range.

Image from D&D Beyond.

Puzzles & Riddles

Puzzles and Riddles can be another great addition into your dungeon or realm to bring an extra challenge. Instead of or in addition to traps, riddles and puzzles can bring more flavor. Unlike regular traps, these cannot be disarmed with lock picks but instead players must use their wisdom/intelligence/wits compete a task in order to open the way. When using riddle or puzzle doors you can also make it a trap where if the player(s) don't answer correctly after a set amount of time or tries then a trap or negative consequence can happen.

These are some things I have done or written in the past:

  • “It’s as light as a feather, but the strongest person can’t hold it for more than five minutes.” - this puzzle requires the answer of breath. Could be something covered in flames that the only way to extinguish it is a gentle breath from a party member.

  • Your party finds a mysterious document left in a crypt/coffin/skeleton/etc. The letter seems straightforward, with some spelling errors and strange symbols. - there is an encrypted message with the letter with the incorrect letters and the symbols to either give a hint about the bbeg or something powerful in the dungeon.

  • There are 4 statues in the room, each one must be facing a certain direction based on hints or history before the door unlocks. I used one of these in a homebrew dungeon for Storm King's Thunder. Each of the giant statues were to be looking at the giant type that was above theirs before the Ordning changed.

Last Thoughts From the Fox

The following is stated in the Basic Rules:

I am the type of DM that highly encourages roll play, and having this as a written statement is nice. I would rather my players focus on roll playing the situation, doing interesting or unique plays, or even attempting crazy stunts than only go by dice rolls. There have been times where "I'll allow it" has come to some memorable moments at the table. Letting my players have moments when they try coming up with ways to foil the traps is part of the game experience, and I would like to think that if a monster or bad guy set these traps they would have a way around the traps, puzzles or riddles they set when they return for the goodies they hid.

I enjoy putting traps, riddles and puzzles into my dungeons. It keeps players on their toes, and brings an element of surprise and cautiousness to game play. It is important to note that traps, puzzles and riddles do slow down game play. It is not something to put in every single room or not necessarily in every game session. If you over use traps players may become annoyed or slow down game play even more if they feel they need to investigate every square of the dungeon.

DC's to help you build your own traps

It is great to bring your own flare into the game

This article goes over a variety of information from published materials from Wizards of the Coast. Basic Rules- "Chapter 15: Adventure Environments". Dungeon Master's Guide "Chapter 5: Adventure Environments." Xanathar's Guide to Everything
References were also made to Dungeon Masters Guide- Third Edition Pages 112-116 along with "Tricks, Empty Rooms, & Basic Trap Design" By Courtney C. Campbell.

Dungeon Master Challenge

This year's Dungeon Master Challenge part 1 was to write a complex trap in 1,000 words or less. Mine turned out to be 995 words. The trap had to follow the rules presented in Xanathar's Guide to Everything and needed to be a fresh new idea. The following is what I came up with. I am very passionate about Druids, as it is my go to class and something that I love. Usually traps are a way to prevent adventurers from getting certain goods and this case I wanted to create a deadly trap that was created for the greater good of protecting special creatures.

Pathway of Druidic Doom

Complex trap (level 5-10, deadly threat)

Xp by level: 3,850

Trap Purpose: In order to protect their grove from dangerous outsiders the druids laid the foundation of these traps to protect the rare creatures inside from poachers and days. The tunnel system is rough and large enough to bring a creature of huge size into the sanctuary. The ceilings are 20 ft tall. The tunnel goes 15 ft in before turning to the east into a 80ft long, 20 ft wide passage. At the end of the passage it turns south into a large oval shaped cavern chamber that is 45 ft long and 40 ft wide at the middle point that hosts a variety of mushrooms living on the walls ceilings along with thick vines. On the south west corner of the cavern chamber it enters into the last tunnel hall that leads to the door to the grove. All walls and floor of the cavern are made of stone.

Initiative/Trigger: The trap activates as soon as a humanoid creature/individual without a Druidic totem from the grove enters 10 ft into the tunnel and remains active while there is still a living humanoid in the tunnel.

Active Elements:

The stone of the wall has glyphs in which the 5th level Druidic spell Transmute Rock has been imbued which is activated by movement past the spot. There is a glyph pair located in the middle of the 80ft long passage, leaving only the first and last 20 ft of the hallway that won’t be affected when the trap triggers. On the specified initiative after being activated the spell first triggers turning the rock of the tunnel back and forth from Rock to Mud. Reference the spell Transmute Rock for more details.

Transmute Rock- Transmute Rock to Mud (Initiative 20). The spell turns the rock of the tunnel into a 40 ft cube of thick flowing mud. As stated in the spell, each foot that a creature moves through the mud costs 4 feet of movement and must make a strength saving throw (DC 16) when entering the area for the first time or end its turn there. On a failed save the creature sinks into the mud and is restrained. The mud from the ceiling falls and any creature under the mud must make a Dexterity saving throw DC 16 or take 4d8 bludgeoning damage (half as much on a successful save).

Transmute Rock- Transmute Mud to Rock. (Initiative 10). The spell triggers and then turns the mud of the tunnel from init 20 back into soft stone. Like the spell states, a creature in the mud must make a Dexterity saving throw (DC 16) or be restrained within the rock.

Mushroom Grove. (Initiative 10) In the oval shaped cavern there are Shrieker and Timmask.

The Shriekers: These mushrooms are triggered after 3 rounds of Transmute Rock has been in place, the continuous falling of the mud from the ceiling in the adjacent hall enough to cause tremors to alert the mushrooms. They are also triggered if someone enters their blindsight radius. They let out their shriek, warning any characters in the entirety of the dungeon that danger is coming. This continues for 1d4 rounds after the last tremor of Transmute Rock or after the last humanoid has left their radius.

The Timmask Net: These mushrooms have been grown on 10x10 foot nets, one over the exact center of the chamber and one right above the opening on the south west corner of the cavern chamber which enters into the last tunnel hall that leads to the door to the grove. These mushroom nets have trip wires (perception 15 to see the triggers wrapped in the vines of the area) that release the net downwards. If a larger or smaller creature gets hit by the net it is restrained until freed. A creature can use its action to make a DC 10 strength check to free itself or another creature from the net or dealing 5 slashing damage (AC 10) will also free something from the net. As the net falls it destroys the Timmask causing it to expel a 15-foot-radius cloud of poisonous spores. Creatures in the area must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned. While poisoned in this way, a creature is under the effect of a confusion spell with a duration of 1 minute. When the spell effect ends, the poisoned condition also ends.

Dynamic Elements:

Transmute Rock-After 3 rounds of the glyph, the ceiling opens up to a water reservoir above flooding the chamber. Those who are not stuck in the floor are washed out of the passage back to the entry taking 1d6 bludgeoning for every 10 ft they travel.

Constant Elements:

Constant Element- Transmute Rock The glyphs of transmute rock affect players each turn that they are still in the affected areas. If the players are unable to make their dexterity saves or strength saves to break free of the mud and stone the next round of the spell has additional effects such as the player sinking further down into the mud/stone. If the player has sunk for 3 consecutive rounds they are then suffocating in the mud as their head is now under the surface.


Transmute Rock- both variations. A DC 20 Intelligence (Arcana) check will allow the character to know that the glyphs can be disengaged by two successful castings of Dispel Magic spell (DC 15) targeting the runes.

Timmask Nets- A DC 15 Dexterity check (with or without thieves tools) will sever the trip wire allowing characters to move past without the nets falling or the mushrooms releasing their spores.

Grove amulet- There is an oak amulet that all grove members wear that gives off an aura that cloaks them from the traps sensors. It allows them to pass all traps without harm as long as no other humanoids trigger the traps.