After many years of playing in a wide variety of roleplaying games, I’ve found that a great deal of gamemasters (GMs) struggle with the art of trapping a dungeon. It sounds easy. Hide some pits in a narrow hall. Make all the statues eyes shoot lasers. Roll a boulder down a long sloping corridor. At the end of the day, though, how often do these tricky traps actually work? For some GMs, the answer is always. To you, I bow my head, and hope that you find these suggestions amusing at the least. To the other GMs who just can’t seem to challenge player characters (PCs) without the use of monsters, here is some advice that may aid you in wiping the smile off your PCs’ faces.
To begin with, let’s examine what kind of dungeon you’re making. If you’re drawing up a lost temple in the heart of a jungle, don’t use lasers and lava traps. Save those for the volcano, or the airship factory. For this article, we’ll use a common dungeon locale; a city’s sewer system.
Here’s the scenario: The PCs are about to delve into a sewer that they know connects to a known criminal hideout. The PCs have just descended into the sewer and were greeted with a combat encounter. They overcame it quickly, and are now searching for treasure after the fight. This is the perfect time to lay a trap. Perhaps one of the bodies they are searching is in the sewer sludge. A PC must go out to search it. Put a pressure plate under the sludge that causes a tidal wave to wash everything away, treasure, corpses, PCs and all. It won’t be lethal (likely), but it will separate the PCs and cause a real pain if they hadn’t finished picking up the loot yet.
In a sewer, another fantastic means of breaking a party’s will is by separating them. Assuming the trap mentioned earlier was triggered, let’s add some sewer grates that have motion detection. If something or someone passes under it, it slams shut. If a duped PC is washed away from her party and the grate slams shut, she will have to move through the labyrinth by herself. That in and of itself is the most dangerous trap of all.
The PCs move on, however tediously, through the sewer. They reunite, pass through a maze of passages, and overcome a few more monsters. They’re getting cocky again, despite wading waist deep in sludge. The time has come for another trap. They are passing through a large room and suddenly a waterfall of sludge begins to drain right on them. It isn’t hard to escape from, but odds are they’ll be temporarily blinded. Depending on your system, determine if all the PCs can retain their footing. Any PC who cannot falls into a drainage pipe under the sludge and is trapped. Do not tell the other PCs, though. Pass the victims notes explaining what happened. Let the other PCs clear their eyes first. Make them work for their information.
Once the PCs realize their comrades are missing, it may well have been anywhere from a few seconds to a whole minute. Include a lever somewhere in the room that opens the pipe the drowning PCs are trapped in. It’s a good team-building exercise, and best of all, it forces PCs to think realistically about sludge in their eyes, drowning, and the dangers of the sewer. After a malicious trap like this, make sure the PCs are well rewarded. Don’t forget, also, to be fair in your narrative. Make sure you give the players a clue or two about what is about to happen. The aim of traps like this isn’t actually to kill PCs; it’s to challenge them to the greatest extent in the hopes that they will overcome your tricks.
These may only be a few clever traps, but to truly challenge your party, it may only take a few. The true trick of making challenging and unpredictable traps is to play off of an assumption the PCs have and twist it. Never give in to cliché. When the PCs come through it still alive, they’ll feel that much better about their characters and your dungeons.
At the end of the day, always remember that a trap will only be as creative as its writer. If you put time and patience into each and every trap, the end result will be a more rewarding experience for you and your gaming group.