Turn Pit Traps from Pit Stops to Pit Tales

I have a sinking feeling that today’s tips might involve some puns. Don’t fall for them though! I’m going to drop a bunch of ideas to help change a classic trap from filler into great gameplay.

No More Pit Bull

I like pit traps. They work in any genre. They’re simple. Almost any foe can deploy them. And they offer many options, so they never get old. Well, to Pit Finder, er, the lead character in the party, it might get old. But I’ll never stop chuckling when the PCs fall for one.

We can make pit traps interesting by breaking them up into three phases:

  1. Before
  2. During
  3. After

That’s a great story structure right there. Let’s see what tall tales pits can tell us….

Before the Pit

The first couple of times the characters fall for a pit, it’s fun. But then the rise in friction is no longer worth the dump in gameplay.

So I pose to us all a creative challenge:

How can we telegraph a pit trap and still make it fun? Here are d6 ideas:

  1. The pit is an illusion designed to get the players off-track.
  2. The pit lid is actually the only stable surface. The rest of the area falls away.
  3. The pit lid is covered in inscriptions, runes, or warnings. The goal here is to get the party to want to open the lid (see the next sections below for reasons why).
  4. For the same purpose, the pit lid has a puzzle on it. Solving the puzzle opens the pit….
  5. The lid is alive or active in some way. Perhaps it vibrates, makes sounds, or has a magic mouth on it.
  6. The pit trap is designed to capture a specific animal or being, such as vacuuming in ghosts or allowing slimes to pour into it.

By not disguising pit traps, and instead offering strange details, clues, and designs to tantalize or mess with players, we can avoid the pitfalls of boring traps.

During the Pit

Johnn: Little Phingers, you hit a pit. You take 5 points of falling damage. Plus 3 for the spikes. Plus 10 for the poison. And another 12 from rat bites as a thousand starving rodents swarm you.

Little Phingers: Ok, I’m unconscious, and dying. Well, that was fun….

Pits need not descend into damage. Here are d6 ways to make a pit trap more fun:

  1. The pit is actually a prison designed to protect the world from something terrible. (I’m looking at you, Murder Hobos in my Phandelver campaign, hahaha!)
  2. The pit is actually the entrance to a vault. A secret door in one wall leads to the owner’s valuables and secrets. And that ladder on the wall nearby? It’s not to help you get out. It’s to help the owner get in.
  3. The pit is actually comfortable quarters for a powerful demon who won’t like bloody footprints on his plush carpets….
  4. The pit has a pipe opening in each wall. Every so often a pipe disgorges its contents. There’s a grated floor too, to screen out the worst of the filth.
  5. Instead of damage, the pit applies conditions. I find conditions much more interesting to gameplay than mere hit point loss. What might a character see that would cause temporary insanity? What might happen to a PC to cause loss of a sense or reduced movement?
  6. The pit is an illusion. The victim screams, writhing on the floor, begging to be saved from whatever version of Hellraiser or Cube they believe they’re in, as the rest of the party watches, bemused.

By swapping out damage for more interesting gameplay, we can make pits a lot easier to fall in love with.

After the Pit

Character falls. Takes damage. Climbs out.


Instead, what if….

  1. The pit is dangerous to enter but is also a portal to a pocket dimension. In this dimension are victims who’ve made a life for themselves but are desperate to escape.
  2. The pit is alive. Perhaps the walls are covered in mouths that whisper unspeakable things that are also occasionally useful clues. Maybe the pit has magical sentience and is lonely.
  3. The pit curses its victims, triggering quests to remove the affliction that unfortunately result in the fruition of the pit’s evil scheme.
  4. The pit causes memory loss. And then it resets all the traps in the dungeon.
  5. The pit is part of a network of pits. Victims are teleported to different dungeons with the same layouts. (Also, if you are interested, the pits meet every Tuesday night. Last week was a hoot because someone spiked the punch.)
  6. The pit floor is painted with a conjuring circle. Landing in the pit summons someone who has previously fallen into the pit.

Think about how a simple pit could create more story opportunities for you, whether it’s quests or situations or more NPCs.

So, if your dungeon is the pits, there’s still hope. Roll or pick an idea above to swap out boring effects for new story opportunities. Make pits easily detectable so the party feels smart. Because that’s just the start of their pitifull plight!

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Have more fun at every game!

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