Last Updated on February 21, 2023
Traps, be they pits full of spikes, rolling boulders, or poisoned darts, are a well-established facet of the adventuring experience. “Meet in a tavern, walk to the dungeon, fight some goblins, fall in a pit trap, roll a new character” probably describes a version of more people’s first experience with Dungeons & Dragons than I’d care to guess.
So, whether you’re halfway through making your second player character, just want some tips and tricks for dungeon exploration, or you’ve heard your DM gleefully muttering about someone called Grimtooth and shooting longing looks at their copy of Tomb of Horrors, here’s Black Citadel’s crash course in trap survival for adventurers who want to make it to level 2.
Grimtooth really puts the cruel and unusual back in the punishment.
How Do Traps Work in DnD 5e?
Traps in D&D 5e usually require a Wisdom (Perception) or Intelligence (Investigation) check to detect, perhaps followed by a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check (using thieves’ tools if you have them) to disarm. If you fail to notice or disarm the trap, the DM will call for an appropriate saving throw (usually Dexterity), or the trap will make an Attack against the PC who triggered it. If the save is failed or the attack hits, the DM rolls for damage.
The physical specifics of each trap (including how obvious it is, what it’s made of, and exactly what you have to do to trigger it) vary from one trap to another, but it almost always comes down to a roll to notice the trap and then a second roll to either disarm the trap if you saw it or get out of the way if you didn’t.
We have huge, protracted chapters on combat, exploration, character generation, and spellcasting, but for something that feels so quintessentially D&D, there really isn’t much that’s been written about traps, and the mechanics that do exist are very simple and not especially satisfying.
I’ve talked a lot about this issue (not to mention my issues with what is written about traps) previously in our guide to traps and puzzles and included plenty of advice on how I think dungeon masters can approach designing traps — namely, making their presence obvious to the players, having more than one answer or path to success, and making sure your traps make sense. But I digress.
Here’s my advice for finding, disarming, and generally not dying to traps in your next dungeon.
Ask More Questions; Describe Actions, Not Rolls
The more you know, the less likely you are to end up slowly dissolving inside a gelatinous cube — at least, that’s what my grandmother always said.
Consider a perfectly innocent hallway in a freshly opened dungeon. The 5e rules expect you, as a character, to walk in there and say, “I look for traps or anything unusual,” to which the DM will respond with a request for a Perception or Investigation check.
You’ll roll a d20 with bonuses (or penalties commensurate to your character’s skill set), and then, depending on if you rolled well, you’ll either see that there’s a patch of dust on one flagstone where the local goblins clearly avoid treading and small, dart-sized holes all over the walls… or you’ll spend the rest of the adventure cosplaying as a pincushion.
Sure, if you pass that test, you’ll spot the trap, but you might not, and then there’s nothing you can do but blithely wander forward and take your poison darts like a champ.
But, what if — instead of asking “are there traps in here” — you asked something more innocuous, something more specific? “Is it dusty in here?” None but the most miserly DMs would begrudge a player the information that it’s quite dusty. “Oh,” you say, innocently. “And is the dust disturbed in any places?” The DM, suspecting something may be afoot, says yes. “And is there anywhere the dust hasn’t been disturbed?”
At this point, the DM really wants to call for a check of some kind (it’s only proper, after all — you’re obviously looking for traps), but it also seems unfair to withhold information that would be readily available to anyone with the special, magical power of… looking at stuff. So the DM says that, yes, there’s one spot in the middle of the floor that’s dustier than all the tiles around it.
“Oh, well I don’t tread on that one. Guys! Don’t tread on that one, okay?”
The party proceeds down the hallway with no misadventure, and not one d20 needed to be rolled.
Now, I run a very old-school D&D-inspired game; things are a lot more brutal, and the fun of it all is focused a lot more on solving problems with your own gray matter rather than the numbers on your character sheet. I like to say to new players that, when the dice come out, there’s always a chance for things to get worse; they know by now that a plan is working if they haven’t rolled in a while.
In 5e, if you want to get caught in fewer arbitrary, “save or damage” style traps, stop relying on your character’s skills and start honing your own. Ask specific questions about the rooms you’re exploring, and describe specific actions that keep you out of the line of fire.
Good questions to ask and actions to make that help detect, avoid, and safely trigger traps include:
- Is there dust, and has it been disturbed?
- Are any of these things cleaner/dirtier than the others?
- Is there a draft coming from anywhere?
- Knock on walls to detect hollow spaces.
- Pouring water on flagstones or tiles; if it pours away, there’s a hidden space below.
- Buy a pair of very thick leather gloves from the town blacksmith to help deal with most poison needle traps.
- Tap the ground ahead of you with a long stick, the haft of a spear, or a trusty 10-foot pole.
- Hold up your torch (or any open flame) near walls, doorways, and statues, asking if the flame moves in a breeze to indicate a hidden space beyond; this is also a great way to find secret doors.
- Buy a pouch full of ball bearings, and throw them at stuff from a safe distance (bonus points if you have a sling).
- Buy a small mirror to safely look around corners or inside trap mechanisms.
- Hire someone you don’t like very much to walk 10 feet in front of you.
What are your tips and tricks for finding and not dying to traps in D&D 5e? Let us know in the comments below, and until next time, happy adventuring.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.