I’ve run a lot of sessions that include traps, and I’ve seen them played out any number of ways, but I’m about to share with you the best piece of advice I’ve ever received on the topic of including traps in your game. As a DM, you might find this counter-intuitive, but consider what I’m about to say as it will make running traps a lot more fun than they usually are.
If you take a look through any number of campaign materials, you’ll often run across a trap described as follows: “There is spike pit trap in the middle of the hallway that can be detected by a DC 10 Perception Check.” At face value, this encounter might run as follows:
“At the end of the hallway you see a wooden door.” You say.
“I want to see if there are any traps in this hallway. My character does a visual check to see if there’s any danger.” The player replies. He rolls a perception check and rolls an 8.
“You look around at the walls and the floor, but you don’t detect any traps in this hallway.”
The player decides to take his character down the hallway and activates the trap.
This style of gameplay is very straightforward, creating a scene wherein the player fails the check and doesn’t spot the trap, but it’s horribly boring and makes for some frustrating play. So how can you, as a DM, phrase the scene in a way that adds some intrigue to the trap and makes the encounter more intesting?
Don’t hide the traps.
Instead, reveal them.
True, the player will need to pass the required check to identify that there’s a spike trap in the floor of the hallway, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some clue which would indicate there’s something amiss. Revealing to your players that a trap is present in the scene creates tension, forces them to think critically about the situation, and makes the game much more enjoyable.
Consider this alternate narrative to the previous example:
“At the end of the hallway you see a wooden door.” You say. “Leading down the hallway you see footprints in the dusty floor from somebody who had passed this way before. The footprints lead only about halfway down the hallway before they disappear.”
“The footprints going down the hall disappear?” The player asks.
“From what you can tell, yes.”
Now the player is curious. “Does it look like somebody could have climbed the walls in this hallway?”
“There are no hand holds in the wall which would allow it.” You reply.
“Something is clearly wrong.” The player begins to muse. “I bet there’s something in the floor. Either that, or somebody invisible is stalking this hallway!”
Suddenly what once had been a basic roll check has now turned into a full-fledged investigation. By telling the player that there’s a trap in the room without revealing its identity, you’re adding tension and interest to the scene that is lost by following the trap rules “by the book”.