Let's discuss trap design and look at a trap from the lair of the nefarious Lich King of Mordeth. The Lich King has had centuries to build and perfect a series of traps to safeguard his tomb, and we'll examine creating one of them with the trap's twist consequence in mind first.
But first, if you haven't already read it, check out It's a Trap from the Torchbearer blog because we are going to pick up where that article left off.
Twist first does not mean you only play twists. Whether to play a twist or give a condition is another topic for another day.
Twist first is a suggestion for designing traps, and the idea is that you think about twists sooner rather than later. You might literally start with a devious twist in mind and then reverse engineer a trap around it. But, "twist first" really means don't let the twist become an afterthought. You can apply twist first to all of your obstacles (not just traps), and, in general, it is a pretty good dungeon design guideline.
More commonly, you'll come up with the type of trap, the trigger, the trap maker's objective or purpose, and then you can solidify that foundation with a solid twist. Finally, you can figure out the obstacles and fine details.
Coming up with good twists can be challenging. Often GMs will lapse into tried-and-true twists like the ol' tear in the backpack or an extinguished torch. There's nothing wrong with those twists. Gear twists are always punishing (sooner or later). However, a fulfilling trap twist flows from the narrative without missing a beat. As the GM, you get to pick the twist based on what you feel is right for the fiction and the situation.
We said we'd think about twists first, so let's have a quick recap.
On the forums, we talk informally about two main types of twists. Technically, a twist is a twist, so let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Most twists fall into two categories or approaches:
Twist Resolved Unfavorably: the test was failed, and that's the end of that. You were trying to detect or disarm the trap, but failed, and now the trap triggers. Things didn't work out. Nothing more you can do. Proceed with the trap trigger's consequences (usually a Health test to prevent injury). Note: the subsequent health test is a GM-imposed test (Torchbearer, p.60) and advances the grind one turn.
Twist Unresolved: the test was failed, but that's not the end of it. One twist could lead to another failure and another and another, and so on. The party might spend three or four turns just dealing with the consequences of the triggered trap if they keep failing.
When failing to detect the trap, you might have fallen into the pit trap, but now the party has to get you out. But, then they fail and drop the rope. Now, they have to build a ladder, and through a comedy of errors, they keep burning torchlight.
Or, the spike trap has you pinned against the wall as the goblins are getting away. Now, the party has to decide to help you or split the party to get the goblins.
Maybe you got teleported to another room, and now it will be several turns before you return to where you left off.
When disarming the trap, a twist might be that the dwarf's full treasure sack gets stuck under the boulder.
Do you try to get the treasure back with more tests on the grind?
Or, maybe the trap goes off, and that causes the roof to start to collapse.
Do you run for it or try to stop the tunnel from getting cut off by propping up the rafters and supports?
Failing Forward (Torchbearer, p.118) means that there is never a time when nothing happens as a consequence of a sprung trap. If there is a test, then the next something is a step toward a future situation in the adventure. That circumstance could be that you are stuck in this room for a little while as you sort things out and figure a way out, or it could be that you pay with a condition and move on.
Some other things to keep in mind:
- Test Scout to detect the trap.
- Test Dungeoneer to disarm it.
- You can't give a condition and a twist for failure. One or the other.
- Traps can never kill a character outright. You have to follow the rules that death comes after the grind, a Kill conflict, or taking another Injured or Sick condition.
- Walking into a trap triggers it. At this point, it is too late to detect or disarm it. Go right to the trigger's consequence.
The objective is the purpose of the trap. Why did the trap maker put this thing here?
To accomplish the objective, the trap applies some effect.
Something has to set off the trap.
- Touch: pressure plates, physical mechanisms, tripwires
- Noise: vibrations, volume levels
- Sight: seeing eyes, light beams, magical streams
- Smell: gassy clouds, vapors
- Timers: sand clocks, spring clocks, water clocks, candles burning down
Once the trap goes off, what does it take to reset it?
Manual or Automatic: reset with physical skills like Laborer, Peasant
Magical: invoked by a Ritualist or Arcanist
Avoiding a Trap's Consequences
Typical obstacles for a given trap difficulty.
- Inconvenient Ob 2
- Dangerous Ob 3
- Treacherous Ob 4
- Cruel Ob 5
- Deadly Ob 6
The Lich King's Lair
Many foolish adventurers have tried to plunder the lair of the Lich King of Mordeth. All have failed. The Lich King delights in devising devilish traps. To lure adventurers into a false sense of security, the first trap occurs three rooms into the dungeon. All of the rooms have bones on the floor, so, at first glance, there is nothing out of the ordinary in this chamber.
Skeletal Sinkhole Trap
In thinking twist first, the Lich King wants to try to snare the party in the middle of the dungeon and rely on his skeleton guards to finish off the job. He is looking for more recruits to fill his ranks. Something like a bear trap comes to mind, so I'm proceeding with that sort of twist first.
Piles of bones and tendons are strewn about the floor, but that's nothing unusual for this lair. In the heap of skeletons set before the room's only other exit, a floor trap awaits.
A sinkhole is a natural trap, and the Lich King has used the materials on hand to obfuscate it. He's got a lot of bones and a lot of time. This trap is a physical snare where a cavity caused by erosion has opened up a hole in the floor. The Lich King has covered up the hole with a weave of carefully connected bones. Once triggered, all of the skeletons slide down into the cavity, pushing the characters into the pit.
At the bottom of the pit, the net of bones piled on top of the group hinders the trapped party just long enough for the guards to make their approach.
Objective: Snare. Hold the trapped character there long enough to send in reinforcements. The Lich King wants to keep the trapped character in the snare long enough for one of the skeleton guard patrols to come upon them. The Lich King is always looking for more corpses to fill the ranks of his skeleton guard.
Detect: Scout Ob 4. The Scout notices that all of the piles of bones have interlocking joints like the weave of a net.
Disarm: Dungeoneer Ob 5. The skeleton net must be carefully disconnected until the rim of the cavity is exposed. Once the skeletons have been cleared and the pit made visible, the party can avoid the compromised portions of the floor.
Trigger: Stepping on any of the bone piles causes the whole interconnected cover to slide down and collapse into the sinkhole.
Reset: A manual Laborer test is required to reconnect the skeletons at just the right angle. The Lich King has perfected this technique over the ages and is quite proud of the number of adventurers it has claimed over the years.
Twist: Stuck. Anyone in the room drops down into the sinkhole cavity. The sinkhole has water seeping up into it, so light sources can be snuffed at the GM's discretion. The water might even become a drowning threat. The party must find a way out of the cavity by climbing out, but the piles of bones and the jagged stone along the sides can cut ropes or injure hands and feet.
The Lich King wants to keep the party here long enough for the regular skeleton guard patrols to hear the collapse and come running. If the party fails to escape, the next twist could be that the guards arrive and start to stab at the trapped characters. That's a situation that might lead to a Kill conflict or some other twist.
By doing a little twist planning with your traps, you can reveal information about the adventure while staying one step ahead of the game.
"Lich King" artwork by Matt Gibeault