Traps, Hazards and Terrain: Complexity

Keep it Hidden

One of the things that makes a trap a trap, and not just a hazard, special terrain or just an avoidable mechanism is the fact that it is hidden. Hidden, however, can mean a lot of different things, and although one might consider something like quicksand to be terrain or a hazard just because it is physically made of earth, I would venture to say that the entire purpose of it being different from normal sand is that you didn’t know it was quicksand when you stepped into it. Thereby, trapping you.

The concept of being hidden is something I’ve had to embrace when designing traps since 4e came out because traps aren’t really considered important (read: fun) outside of combat any longer. A trap on a door that sprays acid on the unlucky PC with the thief’s tools is no longer considered as integral to the game as it used to be. There’s probably a good reason for that, that’s a topic for another post, but it’s clear that traps within the context of combat encounters are where they are most integrated with the game in 4e. They can make a battle more challenging without the expected addition of even more monsters, but they can also add a twist or unique setting to an otherwise dull environment.

That twist always boils down to a trap being, in some way, hidden on the playing field. But the pressure plate that triggers a barrage of poisonous needles is a little bland for you more seasoned players out there. You DMs can make the DCs as high as you want, and sure, catch the PCs every now and then with your futile volley of venom, but in the end, it’s a little boring. It can surely be appreciated as old school, but we’ve got to come up with some new material.

Add a Dash of Something Unexpected

To make this new material, or to spruce up the material that we already have, we need to add a dash of complexity to our devious mechanisms. Especially at higher levels it becomes difficult to believe that powerful and magical creatures like mind flayers, githyanki, rakshasas and efreeti are using simple flame jets and rolling boulders. The complexity of a trap can be the veil, the trigger and the capture, while also continuing to challenge the PCs during the course of an entire combat. The key to designing these kinds of traps however is to make them a bit more screened from your players, but easy for you to adjudicate.

Complexity doesn’t need to mean that it is more complicated however! Complexity to a trap just means that an added element to a mechanism can throw off even a wary PC for one or two rounds longer, providing a little extra mischief and hopefully a little extra fun.

A Few Tips for Sprucing Up Your Traps

  • Don’t hide your traps, disguise your traps: Got a tripwire trap that you want to use? Bring a little danger into the mix by filling a room full of tripwires. Only you know which squares are the trapped ones.
  • Anticipation of danger is worse than danger itself: You put a hidden boulder hanging from a chain in the center of a room that the PCs must pass through, and the fun is they might get crushed. But put four clearly visible boulders hanging from chains in that same room and indicate that some of them might be trapped, and you’ve got even more fun watching the PCs waiting to be crushed.
  • Go for the “I don’t get it” response: There’s a beginning, middle and end to every trap, just like a good story. The PCs see the bait, they experience the switch, they escape danger. With a little complexity you can intensify each of those steps. If you’ve got a metal claw trap on a pedestal with a clear range of danger, place a magical gold ring hovering just out of that claw trap’s range and wait for the response. (silly PCs, the RING is the trap!)
  • Red herrings: Normally red herrings in the plot of your D&D campaign is not advised because PCs make their own false leads and yours gums up the flow. The trap is a short story however and you can get away with these here. “There’s clearly a pit trap in the middle of the room…but why are the walls painted red?” No reason, just an evil wizard messing with them. Let them wonder, that’s half the fun.
  • Better yet, separate the clues: If the red herring idea still gums up your player’s reactions, consider placing dungeon/adventure clues alongside your traps. The tree stump has 12 stacks of 4 platinum pieces each upon it, and the rogue detects a thin wire running underneath some of the coins. What the players don’t know is that all the coins are trapped, they’re just piled up that way because the redcap owners are superstitious about keeping their treasure in odd quantities. (Don’t be afraid to accept an Arcana or History check from a character to determine what’s going on with the stacks, remember to reward them for ferreting out the clues.)
  • Don’t be stingy and don’t hold back: Don’t just use a poison dart trap in that hall, use another trap on top of that one that causes poison vulnerability. It’s one thing to be trapped in a garbage compactor with a dianoga lurking around your feet, but it’s another thing when the walls start compressing in.

New Traps

These two suckers are a bit more complex than you’ll find in any Essentials guidebook, but in my opinion that’s what gives them appeal. The traps written in a lot of the core guides are simple, true, and although they may be easier to use, they just play out like obstacles. There’s a difference between obstacles and an obstacle course. That difference is fun, and only a little sliver of complexity can make the distinction.

Dragging Statues
Hags, medusas, fey and aberrant creatures can make good use of this trap for their lairs. After carving, buying, or petrifying creatures into statues, a bit of enchantment on a few in the area can delay and harass intruders even to the point of death. In any case, they’re disoriented, separated, and ready for the lair’s guardians when they arrive. Don’t be afraid to place the four allotted statues amongst four other statues in a lair (using one of the tips above) to further add the excitement of anticipation to this trap.

Opportune Ring
It’s a trap, it’s a magic item, it’s a cursed magic Item! With all the new material out for Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, curses and cursed items have been a hot topic. Though I’m itching to give these new items a critical review, I was inspired to mix things up a bit in trap design by baiting players with boons while they are adventuring. An extra action point is nice little prospect, but a group that can’t reach the extra level of knowledge might fall quickly into the ring’s trap. In this different kind of instance, you can even put in a little extra risk in the trap that continues on throughout the day, and even days after.

I hope you’ll test these traps out and enjoy the extra level of complexity that makes them something your players will enjoy rather than furrow their brows. We’d love to hear any reaction to this bundle of crunch, so chime in if you’d like.


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