Some locations—the wizard’s tower, the sunken temple, the haunted house—appear repeatedly in stories and adventures. In this series, we’ll explore the archetypal lost temple, playing with or defying tropes, and presenting rules and ideas to bring these locales to life and to set you up for success when putting them into your game.
An Ominous Click
Traps are an integral part of the cursed and forgotten temple experience. To start, let’s review some questions to think about when placing traps. Even if your adventurers might not notice logical inconsistencies, a good grasp of trap placement might give you some ideas:
What area is trapped, why, and when was it installed?
The most important thing about “when” is whether a trap was placed before or after the temple was abandoned. Traps designed to keep out interlopers shouldn’t have affected the temple’s former flock (unless their deity was a real sadist). As such, you’ll rarely find traps in common areas or in ordinary rooms. Traps placed after the place is abandoned, however, may be set up to dissuade anyone from entering at all, or placed with the intent to keep something inside.
What is the trap’s purpose?
Some traps are designed to kill anyone who sets it off. Others are intended to warn occupants, or to disable trespassers to be dealt with in the future. Traps using alarms or set to disable often date from a time when the area was occupied.
Is the trap affected by time?
Some traps, say, one that dumps out live snakes on an intruder, won’t work after too much time passes without magical intervention. Consider whether a trap still functions after a century or dozen.
Traps in these environments tend to fall into three broad categories, with some examples.
Temples in remote areas being reclaimed by nature, or that have suffered from erosion and decay, often contain environmental traps. Some may be placed intentionally, taking advantage of the natural terrain or the damaged state of the structure to discourage trespassers.
Environmental traps can also be accidental. Instead of an inexplicable pit trap in the middle of an abandoned cathedral, the explorers might fall through a section of rotten floorboards into a basement filled with sharp debris.
Cultivated daggerthistle, a sharp-leafed natural vine, grows in channels along the walls and ceiling of a hallway, its roots extending beneath the floor. It has AC 11 and is immune to bludgeoning, piercing, and psychic damage.
Trigger: When a creature comes into contact with it.
Effects: Small creatures can pass through the corridor unhindered. Medium creatures must squeeze through, taking 5 (1d10) slashing damage every 5 feet they move.
Resolution: The daggerthistle can be cleared out with fire or with a one-handed slashing weapon, requiring 25 hit points of damage per 10-foot-square section, and limiting movement to no more than 5 feet forward while doing so. A character who can see down the passage must succeed on a DC 13 Wisdom (Perception) check to notice the grooves in the walls and ceiling, and a DC 10 Intelligence (Nature) check to identify the threat of daggerthistle.
These traps are deliberately built into the structure of the temple. They vary widely, from dart traps to acid baths to giant boulders, but whatever they are, the structure must logically accommodate them. Make sure to consider how people got around these traps when the area was in use. Trap-lined corridors are cool, but not if we’re supposed to believe the ancient cultists defied death every time they went from the dining hall to their cultist quarters.
A hidden pressure plate drops a heavy stone. These traps may be placed outside of rooms to bar entry or inside to block escape.
Trigger: When more than 20 pounds of weight is placed on the pressure plate, a 5-foot-thick section of stone wall drops 10 feet ahead of them and 10 feet behind them, sealing them inside a corridor.
Effects: A creature standing where the wall drops must attempt a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or take 33 (6d10) bludgeoning damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. The creature must also choose to be on the inside or outside of the blockade wall.
Resolution: The falling stone is embedded in the ceiling, requiring a DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check to spot. With a successful DC 15 Intelligence (Investigation) check, a character can deduce the presence of the pressure plate from variations in the mortar and stone used to create it, compared to the surrounding floor. Wedging an iron spike or other object under the pressure plate prevents the trap from activating.
Wards and Curses
While magical traps are a broad category, those here are likely to be some type of warded area or visiting unpleasant effects on intruders and looters. Unlike curses discussed in part 2 of this series, these sorts of curses are more targeted, meant to harry adventurers. Think of a trapped font which blinds the unworthy who drink from it, or a ward that electrocutes anyone who crosses it without speaking its passphrase.
Curse of the Golden Hornets
This chest is inlaid with gold patterns suggesting stingers and sharp retribution.
Trigger: When a treasure chest or another container is opened without a proper key.
Effects: The open chest releases a swarm of magically summoned gold hornets which immediately attacks the nearest creature. These hornets use the statistics of a swarm of wasps. As soon as the swarm moves away from the chest, another swarm appears inside and attacks on its next initiative. The trap summons up to three swarms before being fully expended. Attempting to take something out of the chest while a swarm is in it provokes an attacks of opportunity from every swarm within 5 feet.
Resolution: A spell or other effect that can sense the presence of magic, such as detect magic, reveals an aura of conjuration magic around the chest. Opening the chest with its proper key does not release the hornets. A successful dispel magic (DC 13) cast on the chest destroys the trap. The hornets disintegrate into a puff of gold vapor when destroyed and leave behind nothing of value. The hornets do not damage anything inside the chest.
Ready to make your own forgotten temple adventure? The Kobold Guide to Dungeons provides deep insight on the hows and whys of dungeon design. Expert game designers like David “Zeb” Cook, Dominique Dickey, and James Sutter help make your dungeons more interesting, more challenging, and more FUN.
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