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Retro Traps: 5 Evil Scenarios from the Bad Old Days

Written by Janna - Published on January 21, 2009

There’s been some recent discussion about traps in 4th Edition, especially their detection and destruction. All the talk made me nostalgic for the good old days when traps were creative and crazy, required a skilled thief, and usually served as preludes to a resurrection.

When it comes to traps, I’ve found that the game edition doesn’t really matter. You can take trap ideas from any edition and rework their mechanics to fit into your game. So, without further ado, let’s take a trip down memory lane and stare, mouth agape, at five evil traps from RPG history.

Trap Name: Poke, Grapple, Wrestle, and Chomp

Last Seen: Grimtooth’s Dungeon of Doom, 1992

Why it’s Evil: While floating down an underground river, the party comes to a sudden drop-off. They have the choice of going over the waterfall in a boat (if one is available), or grabbing onto some dangling chains to pull themselves up to safety. But the chains are just another part of the trap. They grow longer with the weight of the PCs, and simultaneously free a spring-loaded spike trap hidden behind the waterfall. When gravity brings the PCs swinging back toward the falls, they hit the spikes for hefty damage. Impaled there, or grievously injured, they soon find that they’re not alone. Something big and hungry lurks in the water below. Grimtooth recommends an albino cave squid, but any big bad aquatic guy will do. The longer the PCs stay in the water, the more tentacles they’ll have to contend with. It will be an epic struggle for the party to get out of this one alive.

Bored of wiping out your party with the same old traps? That’s why we’re here: become a better party pooper with these 5 ways to wipe out your party. (Note: we do not suggest that you go TPK at your next game, but, you know, the option is there…)

Trap Name: Double Vision

Last Seen: The Net Book of Traps, 1991

Why it’s Evil: This trap isn’t immediately deadly, but it’s pretty sick. The trigger for this trap is failure to pick a lock. So if a PC fails their lockpicking or thievery roll, they’re greeted by a razor-sharp blade that pops out and slices off part of their finger. As soon as the fleshy bit is severed, it vanishes. This should cause some worry, and for good reason – the detached digit has actually been teleported to the tower of an evil wizard who dabbles in cloning. The finger is used to create a clone of the newly 9-fingered PC. And as we all know, clones turn up and try to destroy us at the most inopportune times. I like this one for the shock value and ensuing paranoia.

Trap Name: Yellow Mold Death

Last Seen: The Book of Tricks and Traps, 1990’s

Why it’s Evil: The party enters a cave corridor. A treasure chest sits near the far wall. In between the party and the chest, the cave floor is covered with yellow mold (or some other volatile fungus) and the ceiling is lined with stalactites. If the PCs walk across it, they’ll cause themselves a calamity. If they fly or levitate, they’ll cause the stalactites, which are actually piercers, to fall. The piercers can land on the party members for damage, or they can miss completely and fall to the mold-covered floor for some real fun.

It's a trap!Trap Name: The Killer Maypole

Last Seen: The Netbook of Traps, 1991

Why it’s Evil: Maypoles bring images of springtime, dancing, and festivities. Except for the killer maypoles. This trap is triggered when the adventuring party enters a room. Their weight activates pressure plates, causing the doors to swing shut. A large maypole in the center of the room starts to spin around. Its steel arms create friction against the room’s flint walls. Then highly flammable oil spurts out the top of the pole. The PCs are literally roasted. Bon apetite.

Trap Name: It’s Not Over Yet!

Last Seen: The Trap Collection, Volume II, 1990’s

Why it’s Evil: This trap occurs after the party has beaten the boss (assuming they’re still in decent shape after the battle). They come to a room packed with treasure. Only, this treasure room has been cursed. When the PCs start to take some of the wealth for themselves, they are suddenly attacked by their own weapons, staves, and anything else capable of inflicting damage. Then the artistic statues come to life and join in the fray. This is just a mean little plot twist to prolong the party’s suffering.

So, what do you think? Do you have trap horror stories of your own?

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Written by Janna

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17 Responses to “Retro Traps: 5 Evil Scenarios from the Bad Old Days”

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  1. Nicholas Says:

    These are just mean, I love it! I’m going to use “Double Vision” the first chance I get.

  2. Francois B Says:

    My horror story was with one of my memorable thief.

    We have just gone through multiple traps, all trying to add orifices to our bodies.
    We hear just another “click” while trying to disarm one, and i say my famous phrase “i throw myself on the floor” (saying to myself “there, try your hardest”) and the Dm starts laughing..

    Guess what? The spikes go through me from the floor for some 60pts of dmg.

    As DM, still running modules but having ideas of my own, i would spring the following on my players :
    Have the thief find and try and disable the trap.
    He disables the trap or not, they hear alot of rumbling and shifting stone, then…. nothing happens
    Have the trap spring alot later.. usually on their way back out of the dungeon.

    Now i would put multiple room traps activated by heat generated from the PC’s. I usually like “timer-based” traps where it slowly comes to a gruesome death unless they flee or disable it.. but wait! the trigger is in the first room!

    Have fun

  3. Saragon Says:

    My number one source for traps, by far, is a Gleemax forum thread: 1001 Clever Traps for Beginners (DMs Especially). Don’t let the name fool you – it’s actually got over eighteen hundred traps of varying nastiness. Since it is a collective effort, there’s some variance in the quality of the traps, but every one is a great starting point for any DM. (Since the thread originated in WotC’s D&D 3.5 forums, you’ll need to convert damage and rules for whichever system you’re using in your game.)

    I submitted a couple of traps to this thread myself, and here’s my favorite one (which I still have yet to use, but will likely appear in an upcoming Eberron campaign):

    474. Under Pressure
    The Setup: This can really go anywhere; just let someone fall into a deep water-filled pit with very smooth sides, perhaps 5″x5″ or 10″x10″. The pit probably should not have a trapdoor or anything else hanging on its sides, however.

    The Trap: As the PC falls into the water, he hits a ‘net’ of fine triplines that break easily as he touches them. This triggers the descent of a tall pillar of stone or metal from the ceiling above; its bottom face is of the same dimensions as the water-filled pit. The rate of descent of this massive pillar is up to the DM; a round or two of panicked attempts to get the PC out of the pit will add a lot to the moment. As the pillar hits the water (pushing the PC under) it should seal the pit off entirely. It will not, however, stop moving; instead, it will begin to “press” on the water in the pit. (It should be a good enough fit that no water can escape; not really lifelike, but that’s not the point.)

    Liquids, of course, do not readily compress; as the pillar begins to push down on the water in the pit, the water pressure will uniformly rise as it pushes against all the walls of the pit — and the surface area of the character in it. Sadly, the character’s internal organs contain the only space available for the water to expand into, and thus the water begins to deal crushing damage; none in the first round, 1d6 in the second, 2d6 in the third, 3d6 in the fourth, etc.. The DM might also rule that holding one’s breath becomes harder and harder, making the drowning rules even more dangerous, but this trap will continue to deal crushing damage even to a character with water breathing.

    The Escape: There are two possibilities open to the DM here. The first is a hidden trigger, either in the pit or on one side of the pillar in the corridor above, that reverses its direction and ‘unseals’ the pit. The second, and perhaps more interesting idea, is a weak point in the pit wall designed to break open when the water pressure reaches a certain point; this would violently spill the water in the pit and the character within it out into a separate area, damaged, potentially unconscious, and separated from the rest of the party.

    Notes: As with the previous trap, particular effects like water breathing will reduce the immediate danger of this trap. However, the crushing damage could, at the DM’s option, continue to increase or level off when the motive power behind the pillar is unable to compress the water any further.

  4. Saragon Says:

    Also, the worst (i.e. most dastardly) trap I’ve ever read about has to be from – you guessed it – Tomb of Horrors, Gary Gygax’s infamous “beat up my players” dungeon.

    This is from memory, but here’s the setup as I recall it: A smallish room, completely filled with permanent antimagic field spells – no magic whatsoever in the room. It also contains a sarcophagus; within it is a very expensive-looking staff, broken in two but still worth quite a bit. (There are also, I believe, mechanical traps in the room that don’t depend on magic.) Inscriptions on the sarcophagus suggest the room’s antimagic fields are to prevent the reanimation of the body in the tomb.

    Naturally, the broken staff is a Staff of the Magi, carefully broken within the room so that its retributive strike power doesn’t happen. But when the staff is taken out of the antimagic field in the room… well. Roll low on your d100.

  5. Johnn Four Says:

    Love it! Grimtooth’s Traps Ate always caught my attention too.

    Knights of the Dinner Table has a nasty old school trap featured in every issue as well, Grimtooth style complete with massacred PC.

  6. Visionseer Says:

    One of my favorites is the “Un-Trap”.

    This is a room that seals itself once the party is inside. The only feature is a large “window” on one wall, with a large red button below it. Once the door(s) seal, the window comes to life. It displays “60”… then “59”… “58”…. etc. As the count nears “0”, the lights dim, red and blue strobes begin to flash, sirens and alarms begin to sound, with the cacophony and light show getting more and more frantic as the numbers get lower.

    Pushing the Red Button at any point resets the number in the window to “60”.

    The walls, floor and ceiling are impervious to magic, and (of course) the doors don’t present so much as a seam to exploit.

    So, what happens when the big window numbers reach “0”? The lights return to normal and the doors open. Nothing more or less.

    The joy at watching the players panic is exceeded only by the looks on their faces when the door swings open with no ill effects.

  7. Janna Says:

    @ Saragon: Ooh, I’ve heard of that Staff of the Magi trap. It *is* nasty. And thank you for posting a link to the traps thread; I’m looking for some great fire or lava traps for my game. Heh heh heh….

  8. ZedZed77 Says:

    @ Visionseer: I remember something like that from the first season of the T.V. series LOST.

  9. Yax Says:

    Isn’t retro stuff fun? I like the gnome’s lair for retro goodness.

  10. Ninetail Says:

    My favorite trap is the pressure plate. The players step on one, hear that telltale soft *click*… and nothing appears to happen.

    Drives them crazy. Especially when it keeps happening. And, of course, once they’ve started to get used to it and ignore it, they’re close to the deeper parts of the dungeon, wherein lie the pressure plates that haven’t yet been triggered by previous bands of would-be tomb robbers…

  11. coloquialist Says:

    two traps that were homegrown…

    Name: “Oh FFS!” in D&D 3.5
    Stairs downward leading to a large room filled with statues (I told them they were weeping angels to freak my Dr. Who fans out). They are arranged in such a way as to inhibit movement across the room. Across the room are stairs up leading to a stone trap door. The trap door has something heavy atop of it: requiring (3-4) level-appropriate, moderate Str checks to even get the door open. In the middle of the statuary, are 4 more statues carved to look like death. The moment any living thing enters enters any area (I chose 15 ft Radius) close to any statues they all start beginning the event as follows:
    1.) The Angel statues all turn and point (very creepily) towards the clospouring outest living thing. Any one within the defined radius (15ft) must succeed in a Level appropriate Moderately difficult DC Will Save, or Fall asleep for 1d6 rounds.
    2.) Fog cloud (per the 1st level spell) erupts in the entire are of the room.
    3.) The Death Statues start creating a gas that has the same properties as cloud kill.. they do this in an ever-expanding cone. Since you have 4 statues doing this in a cone.. the gas starts to fill the room. ( you determine rate)

    Since Cloudkill does Con Damage, and not HP, the players do not wake up when damage hits. When everyone gets across, the players try to huddle on the stairs to stay out of the cloudkill. Let the cloudkill start to move UP! As they attempt to open the trap door, and then pull themselves out of the room. If they can

    Name: OWWWWW!!!! in D&D 4.0
    A 5×5 square holds a pit trap. A pit trap dropping 15 feet with 1-half-foot spikes at the bottom. Once at the bottom, it becomes apparent that there is sub-floor running underneath the floor the character fell from. This sub-floor is filled with 1 or 2 sets of Needlefang Drake Swarms. The pit trap is located directly next to them. The drakes don’t act when the char. Falls in because they are surprised. But next round (begin of combat) they do. This is nasty for several reasons:
    1.) 2d10 Falling + 1d6 spikes
    2.) The drakes get a free basic attack on their turn.
    3.) If the character is prone, the drakes do 2d10+4,
    4.) As a minor action the drakes can attempt to pull the char.. prone
    5.) The character being knocked prone falls onto the spikes (again) for an extra 1d6
    6.) While in the area of the spikes, the drakes get COMBAT ADVANTAGE! (+2)
    7.) The character still has to get OUT of the pit.

  12. Janna Says:

    @ coloquialist: Nice! Those traps really live up to their names.

  13. Qwilion Says:

    I loved these books when I first discovered them all those years ago.

    I have the revised copy for the d20 system 3.5 ogl that Necromancer games did (hardcover).

    good post keep it up.

    Steven D. Russell
    Rite Publishing

  14. Mike The Merciless Says:

    Grimtooth’s Traps (I still have all of the books) would not be allowed in 4E. Thanks to the complete emasculation of D&D, you aren’t really supposed to have deadly traps in 4E, nothing that deals instant death. There was an article discussing this on Wizards of the Coast D&D site, talking about how traps should be used, clearly stating that there should be no traps that deal instant death. That pretty much margins out a good portion of Grimtooth’s ideas.

  15. Janna Says:

    @ Mike: That may be true, but the DM is still the final authority on TPK. And if you’re going to destroy your party, you may as well have fun while you’re at it. >:)

  16. Tavern of Horrors Says:

    I have a story about my trap dungeon, and the horrors within: the Tavern of Horrors that earned me the title of the “evil dm”. Before you start telling me how mean it is to trap a Tavern, let me say they really deserved it. Though they are nice people they are annoying players, but we all have fun playing a hybrid between 1.0- 2.0 and 3.5. One player of mine is a munchkin. (The others meta-game sometimes and are rules lawyers, this player really wreaks havoc.)
    In the session before Tavern of Horrors the group were in this wooden, classy Mansion, and in the company of a Baron and his servants. I was going to use the Baron as a gateway to some adventures by having him be kidnapped by his servants and being held hostage in the mansion’s higher levels. After fighting the servants who were actually undead in disguise they would come to the top floor. There, they would be a Lich (who was the Baron)that would be the mastermind of all the things that had happened in the campaign via his servants. (My campaign had a lot undead. And dragons. Espically the red dragons. They are awesome!) And he would teleport them all to another plane, and then they would quest there and find out the secret history of the Baron and how he turned evil full of enemies and magic items from my new source book. I even made a prop for the Baron’s diary full of clues to find hidden magic items and get through puzzles.)
    Knowing how my player like to go off the rails and explore irrelevant parts of my dungeons I created maps for all of the mansion, and I even had plans that if they killed the servants, I would just have the Baron turn into the Lich outright.. AND to counteract the obvious want to kill the Baron I made him way higher level than the party. Boy did this go wrong.
    The players wore bored by all of the rping another player was attempting, so the Chaotic Neutral Munckin decided to try to burn down the whole mansion ‘cuz it sounded fun’. Naturally I had the Baron try to stop him. A few natural 20s later he was dead, as were the servants. And the mansion was burnt down. They then raided the Baron’s chared body for his equipment, and destroyed the Baron’s Phylactery. I tried to object, but they rolled right and I didn’t actually think they would KILL the Baron and BURN DOWN the house. I couldn’t even give a good reason why it was immoral because all of the people they killed were Lawful Evil. The session ended, and the players were high fiving each other on their ‘job well done’.
    I went home, and to blow off some steam I looked at your site trying to find a good way to improvise. Luckly, I restored some of my old material and created a new plot hook, but I was still pretty steamed. I was wondering how to punish my players until I found the “stupidest monsters” articles. Narrator: “Then he got an idea! An awful idea! The DM got a wonderful, awful idea!” I know what to do!
    I made a make shift dungeon, and was prepared for next week. The players were cocky from the last session and were making fun of how they ‘totally burned down that weird house thing’. I smiled knowingly.
    Walking from the path to a nearby town with a need to recharge spells and get some health, they spotted a tavern. Running from the tavern was a maiden who exclaimed “My daugter was kidnapped by a Dragon, come in the tavern and I will tell you all about it. I’ll even pay!” They took what they thought was a plot hook and went into the tavern, after going through a quaint little forest with trees, a bunny, some squirrels, and daisies.
    Everything was going good. The lady bought them free rooms, they got free drinks, a feast in their honor, and treasure chests in their rooms full of all the stuff they got from the Baron’s mansion. They decieded to go to their rooms and get much needed rest.
    Enter the Tavern of Horrors.
    They woke up poisoned from the feast while being eaten by Cushion Fungus, attacked by Sheet Phantoms and Death Linen. They decieded to flee and one of the more foolish of the party opened the chest in order to get their loot. Inside was a Mimic, with Lock Lurkers and Raggamoffyns coming out. They tried to escape put the whole room was a Greater Mimic, with Lurker Aboves, Trappers, and Stun Jellies. They escaped their rooms, and found the whole tavern was a House Hunter Mimic with the structure and traps of the Tomb of Horrors. A few died but they managed, to get out of the tavern where they were then bombarded by Udoroots, Wolf-in-sheep’ clothing, Carnivorous Flying Squirrels and Orcroots. After they defeated those, they were bomberded by what they thought was a Beholder and a boss. It was a Gas Spore and two characters died after the garden. Was this the end? A maiden waved and had a large chest behind her. The players all sighed in relief.
    The maiden’s head then crawled out of the dress revealing 8 fuzzly, crawling legs and it was reviled to be the Spider Goddess, Lolth.
    They made combat with the Lesser Goddess, and by the end of it there was one player left, but managed to defeat it. It was the munchkin. >:)
    So he came to a chest behind her. Paranoid it was a trap, he searched for one and opened it after I told them “This chest is not a monster or has a trap-” after they successfully rolled. Inside was the Lich they thought they killed. “-it is a coffin with the Lich you thought you killed inside” He was behind the tavern, and gave Lolith his Phylactery and wore a decoy amulet in case he was killed. The Lich crippled the last remaining and left him at low health, and let a Carnivorous Flying Squirrel finish the job. Then the Lich sent his body along with the bodies of the others to the plane I originally wanted them to go to.
    The players were cracking up, and they enjoyed the difficult dungeon, and said sorry to me for wrecking the other dungeon. I was glad they all learned their lesson, so next session I had a Celestial raise up the whole party and give them each a Magic Item. (Flashy, but nothing powerful)
    We had alot of fun, and they kept (mostly) good tabletop manners and I got to use my sourcebook, prop, and mansion layout. On a side note, my players’ characters now always bring a 10-foot pole, and search every room they sleep in, and do not use sheets.
    So if your players are being uncooperative and arrogent, unleash the Tavern of Horrors, and it may save your campaign and straigten out your players. (Unless you mind being called the Evil DM. I take it as a compliment.)
    By the way unsuspecting reader of this comment, I put a Webpage Mimic on my comment that will pop out 3….2….1! MWAHAHAHA!

  17. D&D: Some Things I Am Collecting « Flotsam, Catkins, & Other Cast-offs Says:

    […] Retro Traps: 5 Evil Scenarios From the Bad Old Days.  Similar to 1001 Traps, this article is even more useful because of the never-ending comments following it. […]

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