Last week, I discussed how traps, tricks and trouble can be used poorly. Now, I would like to give examples of how to make them work for you, enhance the fun at the table for everyone invol;ved (including the DM!) and provide an interesting alternative OR enhancement to the usual combat encounters.
What Makes a Good Trap, Trick or Trouble
When I discussed how the three Ts can go wrong, I broke it down into three main categories: when they are irrlevent, when they are arbitrary and when they are uninspired. This is because it only takes one of those to ruin of trap, trick or trouble. Conversely, when talking about what makes such a thing work, it isn’t so easy to separate them out — all three aspects (relevance, fairness and inspiration) are important for creating a fun and memorable encounter or challenge.
Designing a trap, trick or trouble that is all three relevant, fair and inspired is difficult, but you don’t have to have each in equal measure. A truly inspired trap, for example, can sacrifice a little relevance, even fairness, just because it is so damn cool. Likewise, a very relevant trouble, one that makes sense in the context of the general milieu as well as the particular adventure, enjoys a little leeway in the inspiration department because it adds to and reinforces the reality of the world in which the player characters operate. Fairness (the opposite of arbitrariness) is the hardest to account for, because it is a purely rules specific aspect. For the most part, a D&D world does not care whether characters are 1st or 15th level, or whether they have the right tools for the job. These are concerns for the DM, who has real people at his table (often his friends) he wants both to entertain and have come back again. In that sense, fairness provides the greatest challenge for the trap, trick or trouble designer.
Thankfully, though, the new 5th Edition rule system with its bounded accuracy has flattened the power curve, meaning that the difficulty for ability checks and saving throws are easier to determine and can be more broadly applied. One still must be cognizant of how damage is dealt, however, as inflating hit points are a significant measure of balance for higher level creatures and characters alike.
All that said, a lot of DM judgment is required in both designing traps, tricks and trouble as part of the world, and as elements of game play. Experience will prove to be the best teacher in this regard, and the lessons will inevitably differ between regular gaming groups and temporary groups (such as at conventions and game days). Look to published material and confer with other Dungeon Masters online, but in the end trust your gut as informed by your own experiences.
Some Example Traps, Tricks and Trouble
The intent of the following examples are to provide inspiration, a starting place off which new DM’s can launch their own creativity. Steal them wholesale, sure, but be aware that every adventure and every gaming group will need to tweak them to hit the right balance on the three pillars discussed above.
Crazy Carts: Mine cart races are an old trope and therefore score a little low on the Inspiration scale, but they can be a lot of fun for players that haven’t experienced them before, and even for those who have if you mix them up a little bit. In this example, mine carts running amok are the main transport system from an upper level of a dungeon to a lower, serving as an exciting transition sequence. Essentially a multistage trap that requires multiple characters to navigate, Crazy Carts should last 10 to 15 minutes of real world play time and produce plenty of tension without seriously endangering the PCs — lthough a series of bad die rolls could result in catastrophe!
There are three stages to Crazy Carts, each one representing a leg of the journey and at the end of each a danger. Player characters have two chances to avoid each danger, first by picking up on clues and second through direct action and/or saving throws. Multiple characters are affected at once and those characters can work together to avoid danger, or possibly work at cross purposes and end up in real trouble. Note that Crazy Carts is supposed to be fast moving and exciting, so do not allow players to spend too much time debating their course of action. The mine carts of flying fast and the players’ reactions need to be faster!
The Setup: Goblins, kobolds or another nuisance race has created a mine cart system to get from one level or area of the dungeon to the next. The monsters have developed a system by which their own kind can determine which mine cart rails to take, which the PCs will have to decipher and act on swiftly. Up to four medium creatures or eight small creatures (or an appropriate mix thereof) can fit in a mine cart, although if there are more than 2 medium creatures of 4 small creatures, all are considered to be “squeezed” in. There is no steering on the carts, but there is a break which requires a Strength DC 12 check to operate. In addition, another character must use a melee attack on occasion to switch the cart tracks (AC 14; at least 4 points of damage must be inflicted, resistance to piercing attacks). Successfully pulling the brake by a character grants the attacker advantage on striking the track switch lever.
The goblins or kobolds have devised a simple system for determining which is the right (read: less dangerous) track to take: piles of skulls at the track switch lever. The direction with more skulls indicated more of the little buggers have been killed there and the other direction is the preferred one. Players might miss it or misinterpret it at first, but they should catch on quickly.
Stage 1 — Duck and Jump: The first branch in the track comes up as soon as the PCs have got a good head of speed. They see the switch only a moment before the choice must be made and every PC has a single action they may take (all essentially simultaneous). The switch is set in the “dangerous” position with a small pile of cracked skulls that way. If the characters switch the track to the “safe” position, they careen madly but otherwise safely around a sharp bend. Otherwise, they swoop down a tunnel only to see a break in the track over . The cart can jump the gap but it flies precariously close to the ceiling. Characters must make a Dexterity DC 10 save or take 2d6 bludgeoning damage; small characters have advantage on this roll. If the brake is successfully applied, the cart slows enough to eliminate the potential for collision with the ceiling. In either case, the tracks soon merge with the main track.
Stage 2 — Lean into it: This time, the lever is in the “safe” position. Switching it to the “dangerous” position causes a malfunction and switch track misaligns. The Players must force the cart to tip up on one side to clear the misaligned track. Doing so requires a combined Strength roll. The DC is 10 and three successful rolls by separate individuals are required to avoid the hazard. If the brake is applied, this Strength save is made at disadvantage. If only two successes are achieved, the wheels of the cart don’t quite clear the misaligned track and the riders are jostled hard: anyone holding an object must make a DC 12 Dexterity save or drop what they are holding. If there is only a single success, the cart wheel snag on the misaligned track and is stopped suddenly. Everyone inside takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage, plus 1 for each medium occupant plus 1 more for each occupant wearing medium or heavy armor. If no success are made, the cart flips and all occupants take 4d6 damage (Dexterity DC 14 save for half). Surviving characters can, with effort, right the cart and get it onto the track after an hour or so of hard work (causing them to gain a point of exhaustion).
Stage 3 — Don’t bug out: The final stage of the run is a bit of goblinoid or kobold cruelty. The switch itself is trapped, set purposefully in the “dangerous” position. If it is switched to the “safe” position, the tracks do not switch but a concealed barrel of very sweet but also revolting good pours into the mine cart. The track then leads through a tunnel swarming with hungry insects. Characters are covered in a stinging swarm, which causes 1d4 poison damage each round for the three rounds of travel through the hive tunnel and an additional three rounds afterward (the cart reaches its destination one round after exiting the hive tunnel). A DC 12 Constitution save reduces damage by half and must be rolled each round damage is sustained. Any three failed saves results in the character being Poisoned as well. If the character takes at least 5 points of damage from an area effect fire or acid spell, the stringing damage ends immediately.
Although a bit convoluted, Crazy Carts illustrates a way to incorporate a lot of different game mechanics as well as some cinematic adventure into trap design. Not all traps, tricks or trouble are going to be so involved, of course, but I thought it best to start with an example of just how far you can go as a DM during trap design.
Following are a few less complex examples that still hold to the design goals of relevance, fairness and inspiration:
Trap: This trap is found in an ancient fortress that was once occupied. In ancient days, it was designed to ensure the guardians were true. At a door that leads deeper into the fortress, perhaps into the throne room, the treasure vault or the private suite of the former rulers, there are three pressure plates and on the door three giant turning wheels with which to open the door. The pressure plates are separated from the door by a curtain wall, so one cannot see between the two. One guard knew which pressure plate to stand on and another knew which wheel to turn, and only with the correct combination could the door be opened. The incorrect combination actually locks the door (which can then only be opened from the inside) and releases a noxious cloud equivalent to a cloudkill spell (though not magical so it cannot be dispelled or countered). In order to bypass the trap, the PCs must decipher, perhaps through Intelligence (Investigation) DC 20 to notice wear on the correct plate and wheel, or employing divination magic. There is no way to disarm the mechanism itself.
Trick: In the wilderness, far from civilization, travelling or lost PCs happen upon a circle of standing stones. There are 6 stones in all, forming a circle 25 feet in diameter, and one each stone is etched a glyph representing one of the 6 Primal Sins. Dark rites were undertook here by the foulest of cults. Each Primal Sin is keyed to a specific ability score (Strength=Wrath, Dexterity=Greed, Constitution=Gluttony, Intelligence=Pride, Wisdom=Envy, Charisma=Lust). If a good character touches a standing stone, the character immediately loses one point from the keyed ability score. If a non-good character does the same, they immediately gain one point to the ability score. In either case, a character can only activate one stone per month in this fashion. In addition, as soon as any character that has been thus affected attempt to leave the circle, a powerful evil outside (determined by the DM; use guidelines for a “difficult” encounter) appears and attacks that character until destroyed (and thus sent back to its home plane) or the character is killed, at which point it plane shift to its home plane with the corpse in tow. DC 15 History, Religion or Planes skill checks will reveal the nature of the circle should characters attempt to discern it, and both Survival and Investigation checks at DC 15 will reveal signs that terrible things happened here.
Trouble: Once, a minor god of Winter was jilted by a beautiful dryad. In his despair and anger, he cursed the glade over which she watched to be forever in the grip of an icy blizzard. The PCs stumble across a copse of trees, perhaps 200 feet in diameter, caught in perpetual winter. AT its center is a dryad turned mad (Chaotic Evil in alignment) by her curse, who also had immunity to both fire and cold damage. Although she attacks any who come near her tree (she can cast Ray of Frost for 2d8 cold damage at will and Cone of Cold 3/day) she can be talked (DC 20 Diplomacy check; the check can be made DC 15 with a DC 15 History or Nature check first, revealing her story) into revealing the name of the offending minor God and from where it originates. Clever PCs might find a way to free the dryad, whether by destroying the lesser deity or by somehow blocking his influence. Failing that, if they destroy the dryad, the curse ends and natural seasons and weather return to the glade.