To Find the Fun in Traps, Did D&D Miss the Search Check?

Traps add fun to Dungeons & Dragons when players can (a) make choices that help uncover them or (b) interact with them. Interaction includes crawling to evade scything blades or stuffing the mouth of the green dragon statue to block a jet of poison gas. Fun interaction favors discovery over die rolls and certainly doesn’t include just subtracting damage from hit points.

The standard routine for traps in fifth edition skips all the entertainment. The game’s example goes like this: A character’s passive perception reveals a trap, then a player rolls a Intelligence (Investigation) check to discover how the trap works, and then someone tries a Dexterity (Thieves’ Tools) check to disable the thing. This rote mostly dodges any potential fun. Passive perception just skips any engagement, and a trap’s discovery leads to zero choices. The only activity comes from die rolls. The only decisions come during character building. I daresay the procedure’s designer dislikes traps, but dutifully includes them based on D&D tradition.

Because the fun of traps comes from finding and interacting, dungeon masters can watch players evade them all and rate the session a success. Still, characters may overlook a few gotchas. Unnoticed traps that spring on characters serve three purposes:

  • To make careless and reckless choices lead to consequences.
  • To set a mood of peril.
  • To warn of more dangerous traps ahead.

For setting the mood and as a signal of more traps, the devices players do find work just as well. Even spent traps and their victims’ remains serve the purpose.

When players spot traps and use ingenuity to evade them, they gain the pleasure of figuring things out and feel clever. But even traps where the interaction goes wrong can prove fun. On the Mastering Dungeons podcast, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia says, “I recall an adventure that had a series of traps that were engaging enough that my party activated all of them after spotting all of them, and we were all laughing and having a great time. At one point a player found this pressure plate, and somehow, she concluded that this was the safe spot, so she jumped on it.” Later in the gauntlet, the group found a pit that dropped to a strange growth that hit the bottom, so someone dropped a torch to see. The growth was brown mold, which grows with fire.

The advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for running traps favors using passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to decide when characters notice traps. This advice aims to speed play by skipping time wasted looking for non-existent traps. But passive perception also loses the surprise and fun of rolling the dice. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) Also, passive checks eliminate decisions that lead to uncovering traps, except for choices during character creation. Sure, no one wants a game slowed by fruitless checks for traps, but traps work best where players expect them—preferably past the spiked and burned corpses of previous explorers in dungeons with words like “horrors,” “death,” and “Tucker’s” in the name.

Passive perception can fill a role in a dungeon master’s trap game. Perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, such as a trip wire strung across a corridor. Passive perception can feel like a rule where the DM just chooses whether someone finds a trap. After all, the DMs who set DCs often know their group’s perception scores. But when only the characters at the front get close enough to spot traps, the choice of marching order factors into success. Sometimes the choice to light a torch also leads to success by eliminating the -5 penalty darkvision suffers in total darkness.

If someone observant leads and that character inevitably spots a trip wire, then the incident still sets a mood and signals more traps to come. Plus, players who chose the Observant feat feel rewarded for their choice.

Even the highest passive perception score falls short of trap radar. Totally concealed traps such as a pressure plate buried under dust require a search to uncover. For searching, choose Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Someone skilled at Investigation spots ordinary but significant details such as the residue around the gaping mouth of the dragon statue or the scratch left by the swing of scything blades. When players must ask for searches, they make the choice that a uncovers a trap. Plus, the roll for success adds the uncertainty that passive checks lack, and that roll adds surprise for the DM.

Traditionally, the D&D rules granted thieves and rogues a special knack for finding traps. Arcane tricksters aside, fifth edition’s rogue class fails to reward the Intelligence scores needed for skilled investigation or the Wisdom scores needed for keen perception. Not even the so-called Mastermind archetype requires brains. Even a rogue who chooses to pair Perception or Investigation with expertise will probably fall short. This makes either clerics or wizards best at finding traps, depending on how the DM runs the process of looking. (Hint: Wizards.) The rules for tool proficiency in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything help rogues meet expectations. Characters proficient in thieves’ tools gain advantage when they use Investigation or Perception to find traps. This amounts to a +5 to passive perception. Perhaps the thief can lead the marching order.

If I were to redesign a rogue class, I would consider more abilities that reward a high Intelligence. This would yield thieves more apt at spotting traps and spies more capable of investigation. Character optimizers call classes that require high scores in more than one attribute multi-ability dependent or MAD. Such requirements weaken classes a bit. Fortunately, MAD paladins bring power to spare. Sorry, MAD rangers. A hypothetical MAD rogue would get a small boost to compensate. My dream rogue would also become a capable backstabber, unlike the current version where daggers only rate as a strategy for players seeking the roleplaying challenge of playing an inferior character.

2 thoughts on “To Find the Fun in Traps, Did D&D Miss the Search Check?

  1. Ben P.

    Do you have a recommended source of example traps for those of us who are new to running the game, and could use some examples to learn from? Maybe something from DM’s Guild?

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  2. OctoberGeek

    I have always hated passive perception and traps in 5e. Even at 1st level, it is highly probable that at least one PC will have a Passive Perception that will discover traps with a DC of 10 every time. BORING! As a DM, if I know the group will unerringly find a trap, why put it in? They’ll just avoid it (probably).

    So I propose that a PC’s passive perception become contested by how well the make of the trap has hidden it.

    Whenever the group might encounter a trap, and they are not actively looking for it, I roll 1d20 + a bonus equal to the second number in the traps DC to find. For example, a trap with a DC of 12 would get a +2, and a trap with a DC of 10 or below would get a +0. This was the chance to spot it with passive perception isn’t always a given. If the trap rolls higher than the best PP in the group, they don’t find the trap.

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