Design & Development03/03/2006

Traps Feedback

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week we share your emails, offering at look at the traps used in your game.

Greetings folks! We’ve decided to open the mailbag once more and share some of the more fiendish, diabolical… and most importantly, memorable traps you’ve used in your gaming groups (a request Dave Noonan made in his “Let’s Get Small: Adventure Design, Part 1”). Please note, the following have been slightly edited from their original emails. Our thanks to everyone writing in to – your feedback, as always, is very much appreciated.

First, a Few Quick Hits

Ceiling Maze: In this trap, the party enters a large chamber with floor tiles inscribed with runes. These runes, however, are random and meaningless – the solution to correctly navigating the room can be found on the ceiling, where another intricate pattern has been placed. The secret to this pattern is that most of the mazelike lines never touch the edge of the ceiling, they just vanish or loop back… except for a single line, which touches both edges of the ceiling and is the true guide across the chamber.

Notes: Compare this to area #3 in the Tomb of Horrors, in which the pattern along the floor is the trap itself. Following the pattern takes players over several covered pits, finally leading them to two equally devilishly trapped archways. The solution? At the bottom of the pit traps, secret/concealed doors lead to the rest of the dungeon.

Magnetics, Wee!: The ceiling of this hallway is plated with copper panels, magically enhanced with a nearly irresistible magnetic pull. Coins, swords, and skeletons still inside their suits of armor all lay against the ceiling, warning players about the nature of this trap. Characters who remove their armor, etc., are safe from the magnets – only to face a flesh golem charging at them from the other end of the hallway.
-- J. Dieffenbach

Fireball Closet: A buddy of mine was DM for a couple of other friends; one of them, Mike, loved playing the typical fireball, lightning bolt-casting magic-user (this was back in 1st edition). One time the DM created a trap that had Mike specifically in mind -- it was basically a 5' deep closet with a major image (or other appropriate illusion) that made it look like a much larger room filled with low-level nasties easily handled with the magic-user's favorite spells. The trap’s effect was that his spells’ starting areas ended up being a lot closer to the party than originally anticipated.
-- D. Norman

Notes: This shows some 1st edition fun. Back then, this trap would have worked exceptionally well due to the nature of fireball and lightening bolt. Here’s a quote from 1st edition lightening bolt: “If the full length of the [lightening bolt] is not possible due to the interposition of a non-conducting barrier (such as a stone wall), the lightening bolt will double and rebound toward the caster, its length being the normal total from beginning to end…”

Now look at the 3.5 edition lightening bolt: “If the damage caused to an interposing barrier shatters or breaks through it, the [lightening bolt] may continue beyond the barrier if the spell’s range permits; otherwise, it stops at the barrier just as any other spell effect does.” That’s a revision that saves a party from the occasional 1st edition backlash!

What Time is It?

One of the most interesting (and frustrating) traps I’ve ever encountered as a player was the “sundial trap.” My party had been making its way through the tomb of a famous gnome trap-maker. Each room was basically an elaborate trap designed to weaken or kill the party (as in Tomb of Horrors).

We went down a long, unlit hallway and came upon a door. We opened the door and found a room, roughly 30' x 30' with a large stone pole sticking out of the floor. We searched the opening around the doorway for traps – and as soon as we were done, a hamatula devil appeared on the other side of the room! We thought we’d set off a trap, so we quickly entered the fray with the devil and soon dispatched it.

It was only one round later after our victory that another creature appeared to attack us. This time it was a hezrou demon.

Three more monsters appeared in that room before we realized that a monster was appearing wherever the shadow of our light source was pointing. We then deduced that the pole and shadow were similar in appearance and purpose to a sundial. Different sundial positions related to different monsters popping up to kill us. An earlier clue we had received, referring to a specific time, then made perfect sense and we were able to bypass the trap and continue on. It took several Spot and Intelligence checks to figure out this puzzle, and we lost one character, but it will go down as one of the most memorable traps I have ever encountered.
-- L. Lundberg

“You and the Land are One”

When our party awoke, we were in a dimly lit room. The tiles in the floor described the reaching black hand of Bane, and there was a door in each of the four walls, each one flanked by two statues. The doors were carved in designs suggestive of the various lands of Faerun, while the statues represented a sampling of Faerun's more iconic peoples.

The statues were chained to their respective doorways, and they seemed saddened, with carven tears on their cheeks. One of us stepped toward one of the doors, and the nearest statue animated, attacking that person. When it reached the end of its chain, the statue snapped back into place and became inanimate once more. We soon learned that there was only a very small safe bit of floor space in the center of the room.

After some bickering, we agreed to an experiment: break a chain and see what happens when one of the statues was freed.

We picked the most innocuous looking statue. As the chain shattered, the stone melted away from the figure, revealing a real-seeming and happy human. The thick stone door behind him opened just long enough for him to walk through, and the room became brighter.

After some more experimentation, we all came to realize the answer was right there around us -- to escape Bane's cage, we had to free the oppressed peoples of Faerun. When all eight of the statues were freed, the room disappeared and we went on with our quest.

It was a nice little puzzle that required us to pay close attention to the fantasy world around us.
-- ep

The Ultimate Trap: Habit

My players were exploring an old abandoned keep in the High Forest in Faerun. In the dungeon of the castle was an old, disregarded temple to Shar, goddess of loss and darkness. The PCs found a statue there, and a bit of searching revealed a secret panel in the statue's chest. The rogue made a Search check, didn't find any traps or locks, and then opened the panel.

On the other side of the panel was a recess with two buttons, the first on the left already pushed in and the second, on the right, popped out. Another Search check, and the thief discovered that the buttons themselves weren't trapped but seemed to be part of a trap in some manner.

Being brave (and full of Hit Points), the thief pushed in the right-hand button. My response as the DM was, “OK.” [Roll some dice.] “Five small darts fly out of the darkness of the ceiling. Luckily three miss, but two hit for a point of damage each.”

The player cursed, mumbled. I replied that the button he pushed was now popped in, and the other button that was popped in, was now popped out.

The thief, not to be outfoxed by a simple dart trap, retrieved his handy-dandy 10’ pole and said that he was using it to push in the other button.

I smiled, rolled come dice, and said, "A spear shoots up out of the floor at a spot where someone using a 10’ pole would have to be standing to push the button. Your character takes 4 points of damage.” At that point, the thief fell unconscious (it was a 1st level adventure).

The player called me on the trap. “There’s no way a spear came up and got me. You're making that up!”

I shook my head, handing him my notebook opened to the page describing the statue, and pointed out the text: “The first button does two things: 1st, it triggers a dart trap that hits the triggering character with 1d6 darts. 2nd, it arms the second trap. The 2nd trap arms a spring-loaded spear in the floor. Its target is a point ten feet away from the statue, where someone would stand if they were pressing the buttons with a 10’ pole.”

The player handed me back my notes and then asked the party cleric for some healing. After a good laugh, it taught the players that the world was constructed logically, and if they took the time to think about what their opponents would think, they could probably circumvent most traps and tricks.
-- the cat.dragon

How’d He Do It?

I was inspired by an episode of MacGyver in my youth, wherein there was a competition to lock a door. MacGyver’s solution was to have the door unlocked from the get-go, but also to have a miniature setup of the room keyed to the peephole. In the mini-room, there appeared to be a hydraulic device of some sort keeping the door closed. After finding the right radio frequency, the person at the door could make it activate (like a garage door opener), and the peephole would make it look like the obstacle was removed when, in fact, they just locked the door.

I did something similar to my players. After wandering through a maze-filled tower, the PCs came to a room with two doors directly across from each other standing wide open. After entering the room, both doors slammed shut, and a small dial next to the point of entry began to tick down from 10 to 0. There was a red button in the middle of the dial. The room was completely warded against magic, the doors were invulnerable without locks or knobs, and there were grated vents 100 feet in the air that the PCs couldn't reach. The players were convinced that death would rain down on them should the timer reach zero before their escape, and at 2 seconds one of them panicked and hit the red button.

The timer reset to 10 and began to count down again. I then gave the player whose character was pressing the button an egg timer, and made him wind it up to 10 every time.

After two real-time hours of trying to escape to no avail, the PCs despaired of life and told the character pressing the button to stop and just let the timer count down.

After 10 seconds, the doors effortlessly swung open.

And then my players chased me out the backdoor and around the house. They caught me after the third lap, and I've never implemented that "trap" since.
-- J. Hathway

…and Humor at the Gaming Table, Too!

In the original Temple of Elemental Evil, one of the lower levels had a previously triggered pit-trap (perhaps about 10’ x 30’ and 8-10' deep). The crux was a door on the opposite side. After determining that there were no spikes or secondary traps in this one, half our party climbed down the pit and prepared to get to the door, while the other half gave advice on how to climb out the far side and open it. While arguing the finer points of accomplishing this, the door opened on its own as some denizens on the other side interrupted us. The encounter was hilarious and remembered for years later:

“Excuse us… but, er... can we fight you now?”
Players (unanimously): “In a minute!”

Fortuitously, the DM played along and we were still able to “surprise” the denizens when we finally made it through the door.
-- digital.wraith

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.

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