Eight variations on the standard pit trap

Pit traps have been a staple element of dungeon adventuring since the very beginning of fantasy role-playing. This sort of trap is simple, inexpensive and effective, so it isn’t surprising to see villains employing them, or to see player character (PC) heroes falling into them.

For the players of those PCs, though, there is something lackluster about falling into a hole, even if putting a hole in the PCs’ way is one way the villain hopes to overcome the heroes.

Fortunately, there are seveal variations on the standard pit trap that can make the game more challenging for the heroes and more entertaining for the players. Eight such variations are listed below.

  1. Enhance Pit Damage. Trendy villains will accessorize their pit traps, either with permanent features like spikes pointing upwards from the floor, or with other traps that need periodic maintenance, resetting or refilling, such as vertical walls that move inward (crushing those in the pit) or traps that spray acid or flaming oil.
  2. Redirect the Party. A pit trap doesn’t have to be a simple hole; it can open new exploration routes (or force them, if the drop is long enough) for the party. For example, consider a two-level dungeon with brigands inahbiting the level above the untamed caverns below. The brigands might create a pit trap that drops intruders into the caverns, where intruders probably won’t survive. Classic examples of this variation appear in the first edition D&D module Ravenloft, in which a pit neatly drops heroes into jail cells. When using this option, try to ensure that the pit drops the heroes into a worse place than they were originally headed.
  3. Add some monsters. while most villainous manuals sugest that a couple of skulls and stagnant puddles be left in the bottom of a pit for style, there is no requirement that pit traps must be kept empty. placing monsters in the pit bottom that don’t require much in the way of sustenance, sush as mindless undead or constructs, can greatly increase a pit trap’s level of danger. Alternately, high-traffic pits can contain creatures that require organic matter to exist, such as monstrous fungi (spores from which will be released when hapless heroes fall atop them). A variation that is both useful for villains but particlarly nasty for heroes is the combination trap/garbage disposal, where a monster like a gelatinous cube will eat waste from the villain and his minions when heroes aren’t falling into the pit and landing on top of the creature, whose paralysis attacks automatically hit falling heroes.
  4. Add a little filth. Not only is doing so classic villain style; putting things like raw sewage or rotting carrion into a pit exponentially increases the chances of a hero contracting a debilitating or fatal disease, at minimal risk to the villain or his minions.
  5. Fill the pit with something after the heroes fall in. Most players won’t feel too concerned when their PCs fall into a pit. But when the pit closes and locks overhead and their landing triggers a pressure plate that opens a vent that begins to fill the pit with water, sand, grain or poison gas, players suddenly become much more attentive. Such a trap may involve a skill challenge to escape, if the Dungeon Master (DM) is using the fourth edition D&D rules.
  6. Use the pit as battlefield terrain. Sometimes, a villain may use pits to enahance the abilities of his minions. Minions with the ability to force heroes to move, such as bull rushes and push/pull/slide maneuvers, can employ those abilities to shove PCs into the pits, inflicting damage and restricting their movement and line-of-sight.
  7. Employ the pit trap to separate the party. Pits the drop heroes into a position that doesn’t allow for quick extraction – like long drops into flooded areas or down along slippery, steep slides – can split the party for a few minutes or more of game time, which is ample for villains to strike at the now-weakened party.
  8. Place a teleportation gate at the bottom of the pit. Villains with access to magic may install a permanent teleportation circle or gate at a pit’s bottom, moving intruders to less-sensitive areas (like into a jail cell, outside of the complex, or the lair of a hungry monster). In that case, heroes looking to rescue their fallen comrade will see nothing but an empty pit.

Of course, any or all of these pit trap variations can be combined to create a range of traps that could fill an entire book on the subject. And now devious DMs can begin to write their own such volume.

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3 comments on “Eight variations on the standard pit trap

  1. Denise says:

    Pis with poisonous snakes, stakes, gas and sewage are most effective 😉

    Please check out my list of fun, free rpg games here

  2. Alric says:

    Weclome, Denise, and thank you for reading.

    I once placed a pit trap very similar to the one you described – it contained stakes, sewage and leeches. During the first-edition days, a leech swarm was an official monster, one that could be killed with any area of effect spell. The heroes were walking through the sewers of a major city in thigh-deep sewage runoff.

    They triggered the pit trap – a water-tight, 20′ long monster constructed by the villain through placing dams and diverting flow – and fell upon the pit’s spiked bottom as the sewage from above poured in, along with two leech clouds that were in the water just ahead of the pit. Thus, the pit had increased damage, disease and monsters all at once.

    The kicker was that the PC mage didn’t have any area of effect spells memorized, and they didn’t dare use fire to remove the leeches (flammable gases and all that), so the leeches nearly killed the party before they could reach the surface and remove the parasites.

    I had to buy my own pizza that night.

  3. […] appear in D&D adventures, similar damage-inflicting “booby-traps” do, ranging from pit traps to flame jets to pendulum blades. Villains choosing to install such traps in their lairs must be […]

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