Most players seem to think pit traps are pretty boring and annoying. As a DM, I actually think they are a wealth of information to any player who can read the clues. As it turns out, I actually get a great deal of fun out of them.
Why Is It There?
There are two standard reasons why someone would build a pit trap: to catch someone/something or to serve as an obstacle.
Say that you have a group of kobolds. They aren’t especially effective in hand-to-hand combat so they use traps and ranged combat in order to secure a meal. Their pit traps are designed to injure whatever falls in the trap and keep it prisoner until they come along and finish it off with arrows or spells. They then have to go down into the pit, haul out their prey, and restore whatever camouflage they had in place (if any) to prepare for the next victim. Not being very sophisticated, the covering is typically fairly easy to spot (by those that are paying attention) and therefore pretty easy to avoid.
On the other hand, a band of thieves living in the dungeon may simply want to prevent monsters from walking into their lair. They might create a pit trap as an obstacle blocking the entrance to their headquarters and may even leave the pit uncovered, making it a clear sign that the area should be avoided. Obviously, some allowance would have to be made to prevent creatures from leaping over the pit, such as walling up the corridor just past the pit. These thieves would then need some way past the obstacle themselves, such as handholds/footholds in the wall above the pit and a secret door through the walled-up area. Alternatively, there could be a secret passage elsewhere that would lead into their area.
A third reason would be simply to kill intruders. Although appropriate in some situations, I try to avoid any kind of instant death situations. Dying is never fun, but dying to bad luck is especially frustrating. My favorite exception to killer traps is described in a post I wrote years ago titled My Favorite NPC. If you haven’t read it, I think it’s worth your time.
There are other reasons someone would build a pit trap but those are the obvious ones. Different creatures may be more sophisticated, leading to more complicated traps that are harder to detect.
In any case, the specifics of the trap, and the area around the trap, should give some indication as to what its purpose is and what sort of creatures may have built it. This should give players a hint as to what may be around the corner.
Different DMs will deal with this differently. The following is how I handle it. Your mileage may vary.
Standard damage is 1d6 per 10′ drop. If there are spikes at the bottom, I roll 1d4 to determine how many spikes impaled the victim. Each spike then does 1d6 damage.
The above is pretty straightforward and, imo, sufficiently deadly. However, there are many options that could be applied even to something this simple. First off, a maintained trap could have poison applied to the spikes. There are many types of poison so the damage could vary wildly. It could be argued that the damage from the spikes should be increased based on the depth of the pit, much as a strong character is able to apply more damage by hitting harder. The number of spikes hitting the victim could be varied indicating that there are more or less spikes at the bottom of the pit. You could rule that a character impaled by one or more spikes is unable to free herself without aid. Also, you could rule that the character sustains on-going bleed damage, perhaps 1hp per spike until a save is made (for each spike). I’m sure an inventive DM could think of a few twists that I haven’t listed here.
One modification we’ve talked about that I like but haven’t implemented, is that characters have a chance of breaking bones when falling. The way it would work is that the character takes 1d6 damage per 10′ fallen, but every ‘1’ rolled indicates a broken bone. The character would then be unable to walk if a leg/foot is broken, unable to swing a weapon if the main hand/arm is broken, unable to heal naturally if ribs are broken, etc. A bigger drop indicates more broken bones.
As I said, I like the idea. I think there should be more of a penalty for falling. The hit point system allows high level characters to fall ridiculous distances without any meaningful hardship. This would address that. However, I have always been very much against any form of critical hit tables as it would create unnecessary complications that would slow down the game. I’m afraid this idea would do the same thing, although it would happen much less frequently, making it perhaps an acceptable tradeoff.
A chute is, in most aspects, identical to a pit trap. The only difference is that instead of delivering the victim to the bottom of a trap, the victim is deposited on a deeper level of the dungeon. I’ve talked to people who envision a chute as a hole that goes straight down through the roof of the next lower level. This then constitutes a much greater fall, perhaps 60-100 feet. Few characters are going to survive that. I’ve always seen a chute as a slide that takes the victim to a lower level, but deposits them without causing any damage.
It is then up to the rest of the party to make the decision as to whether they too should jump into the chute and join their comrade or abandon her to her own devices. Any that go down the chute are then trapped on some new level with no idea of how to get out. Presumably, there will be a stairway back up… somewhere. But it is up to them to find it.
Falling into a pit trap is bad enough. Landing on spikes could be lethal. But what if there are monsters at the bottom of the pit? A lone character, dazed and confused, lying at the bottom of the pit suddenly hears a growl coming from behind her. A lion or a bear would probably tear the character apart. What character could stand a chance against a pack in close quarters? And there could be worse things down there.
Imagine falling into a pit, but instead of hitting the bottom your character falls into a gelatinous cube or a large green slime. I never impose instant death like that, but I’m sure there are DMs who do. Maybe I’m soft on my players, but I like to always at least give them a fighting chance.
I did once put a gelatinous cube at the bottom of a pit. In fact, there were two gelatinous cubes. But I did it with a twist. There was a 20′ pit that dropped into a 60′ x 60′ area, broken up with pillars. This gave the character room to move about and fight. After falling into the pit, the character started out with no light, laying on the ground having just taken 2d6 damage from the fall, and there was a sloshing, slithering sound coming from the darkness.
Obviously, the creators of this trap simply wanted to kill off intruders. There was an illusion disguising the pit, so there was no need to ever reset the trap; it was self-maintaining. Of course, this meant that whatever went into the pit stayed there. When the party managed to kill the two gelatinous cubes, they discovered quite a treasure. All the loot, carried by all those that had previously fallen into the pit, was still there. Getting out of the pit was a bit of a challenge. But once managed, the party had quite a haul for their troubles.
Expanding on That Idea
This idea got me thinking. A pit that actually dropped the party into a large room was an interesting idea. Most other parties had never discovered the room. Those who had, never made it back out. Because of that fact, there was more treasure there than that found after most encounters.
This is a problem I’ve had for a while. My players are running their character through areas that other adventurers have already been through. The really big hauls have already been found. With few exceptions, there was nothing left but incidental treasure in the lairs of new monsters who have moved in to vacant areas. It just doesn’t make sense for them to find any cool treasure stashes because realistically other adventurers would have found it previously. Obviously, the DM can pull shenanigans to get around things like that, but I’d rather keep things believable.
This new idea is believable! A pit trap can drop the characters into a large room, never plundered by previous adventurers. Those previous adventurers may have detected the trap and simply avoided it. That’s quite believable as well. Now take the idea a bit further. Instead of dropping into a large room, the pit could drop them into one room of many. Or taken even further, it could be the entrance to an entire secret level.
Other adventurers detect a pit trap on the 3rd level. They avoid it. Later they find stairs to the 4th level. They may notice that the stairs between the two levels are longer than those between other levels. Or maybe they don’t. In any case, why should they suspect that there is actually a whole level between the 3rd and 4th levels that they missed. Even if they did, it certainly wouldn’t be obvious that the entrance to the secret level originates through a pit trap.
Now my group of adventurers can discover virgin territory and cool treasures without wondering why previous groups had not been there before them. I’ve found this to be an awesome approach and my players enjoyed it. Clearly you don’t want to do it very often, but it’s also gotten my players in the habit of exploring pit traps “just in case”, which has netted them quite a bit of loot left behind by previous victims.