I’ll come out and say it right away, you should use more traps and terrain obstacles in your campaign immediately. Pitting the PCs against monsters is a great pinnacle of a story, but there is nothing like a good trap or terrain obstacle. In the past few months, I played two 4-hour sessions based solely on terrain obstacles and traps. Both sessions were some of the most memorable sessions that I’ve played in a while.
Traps & Magic Tricks
A series of magic and man-made traps make for an unbeatable combo. One trap was a reverse gravity corridor leading to spikes. Everyone looks at the ground for danger, but who expects their character to quickly rise to impending spiky doom? Another had the illusion of a floor where there was no actual floor. Yeah, you guessed it, more spikes hit home as the characters lost sight of their ally. It was exciting to make the characters question their every move and the pace of the adventure turns from moving forward to troubleshooting. Nothing is a better conversation starter among the player than halting them in their tracks.
Obstacles are just as exciting, but only if there is clear danger associated with them. Cliffs aren’t hard to set up, but depending on their height and difficulty can push certain character skills to the limits. Like Indiana Jones, I had the classic boulder rolling toward the players. They saw the trap coming a mile away, but what was interesting was that it didn’t seem so classic and mundane when their characters had to deal with it. It was deadly, it was hard, it was fun! After a character was crushed and nearly died, it is a memory that is now solidified in my memory, and his, I’m sure. Another Indiana Jones obstacle that I took elements from was a mine cart rolling ever downward at a rapid pace. The PCs couldn’t say no to jumping into their imaginary go carts and speeding across caverns at full speed until I asked them to make some strength and dexterity rolls to not topple the top-heavy carts on sharp turns. I didn’t get the chase scene as I planned, but when characters find themselves outside of a cart at high speeds, they get quite nervous. Two words- DM gold. Okay, maybe that’s technically three words, but the point stands. It’s just as much fun for me as it is for them.
If fun isn’t enough, the great thing about obstacles is that they still cost resources. The first resource, and most important to me, is time. Digging through collapsed mines to get to the entrance/exit when on a time limit can severely increase the pucker factor. The other obvious resources are hit points. Poison, explosions, rocks falling or just falling off something hurts. And it can hurt a LOT. It requires players to cast spells to solve the puzzle. Another spell slot down.
One interesting part about traps and obstacles is that they can pose an even greater threat to PCs than encounters can. Usually, only one character will find themselves in the hot seat, but more often than not that character is in for quite a ride in order to get out of the scenario. It’s also not usually enough for the entire party to say that it’s time to rest. Three PCs with full resources don’t usually stop for one character. The show must go on as there is a bit of social pressure that comes into play.
Tying It All Together
I think the most important part of traps and obstacles is that they change the pace of an adventure. Obstacles aren’t organized like a detailed initiative order. Even if there is an order to obstacle events, such as a series of explosions, conversation takes the main sage between the players versus character actions.
As a DM, I see all encounters as wars of attrition. Boss fights certainly test a character’s ability to survive, but traps and obstacles test their utility abilities to solve puzzles. It still uses resources and still costs them time to complete.