Some locations—the wizard’s tower, the sunken temple, the haunted house—appear repeatedly in stories and adventures. In this series, we’ll explore these archetypal locations, playing with or defying tropes, and presenting rules and ideas to bring these locales to life and to set you up for success when incorporating them into your game.
Whether a windswept manor on the moors, a dilapidated hut outside of town, or a castle on the verge of ruin, haunted locations are ripe areas to introduce backstory, side plots, clues, atmosphere, or some undead bashing.
This section introduces suggestions for creating haunted traps, a modified hazard customized for setting off spooky supernatural effects!
A haunted trap is a type of magical trap with alternate rules for detection and dismissal. These traps are created by swells of necrotic energy, similarly to undead, but focus on particular manifestations of an emotion or event rather than being truly intelligent. As such, they work best as intentional GM choices to add history and flavor to a haunted location. Unless otherwise stated, haunted traps follow the usual rules for traps.
Triggering a Haunted Trap. Most haunted traps are triggered by a corporeal creature entering an area or touching an object.
Some haunted traps may be inert most of the time, only able to be triggered under esoteric conditions, such as by saying a particular name three times in the area or only during a full moon.
Detecting and Disabling a Haunted Trap. Obvious swells of necrotic energy are visible on the Ethereal Plane in areas with a haunted trap. Otherwise, haunted traps don’t have obvious mechanisms, but they do have subtle “tells” as described in a haunted trap’s description. Detection checks for haunted traps are less about noticing the tells and more about recognizing the significance. Once the area or object affected by the haunted trap is identified, it may be possible to bypass it entirely.
Any character can attempt an Intelligence (Religion) check to temporarily disable a haunted trap by reciting prayers, chanting, or doing a similar rite to calm the area’s energy. Most haunted traps reactivate after 1 minute or so.
Dispel magic does not work to disable haunted traps but turn undead and destroy undead effects render them inert for 1 minute (or 1 month, if using destroy undead) with a successful spellcasting ability check against the trap’s DC.
Permanently destroying a haunted trap requires casting hallow on the area or object affected by the haunted trap (or a higher-level similar spell effect) or performing an action to resolve the haunted energy, which will vary. Some example conditions include burying someone’s bones, destroying a haunted object, or bringing a murderer to justice.
Trap Effects. Haunted trap effects are supernatural in origin and defy any rational or mechanical explanation. Exact effects vary and are explained in their description. Some can be harmful, but most are intended to harry, frighten, or exhaust their targets to make them easier victims or manipulate them into helping resolve the haunted trap.
Undead and haunted traps go together, and some can act as a beacon if triggered, drawing undead toward it.
Below are some examples of haunted taps.
Haunted trap (level 1–4, moderate threat)
This haunted trap is permeated by mischievous energy and is often found with poltergeists or spirits of children nearby.
Trigger. Picking up or touching an old doll triggers the playful pilfering.
Effect. A character interacting with the haunted doll must succeed on a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw to avoid having an item pilfered. On a failure, one of their items randomly disappears, as if it were affected by teleport,and appears in a location within 30 feet. This can be behind a closed door, in a locked drawer, closet, or chest, or on an upper or lower level. Items cannot be taken if they are firmly attached, such as locked gauntlets, but they can disappear from inside containers.
To randomly determine what type of item is taken, roll 1d6: 1, Weapon/Ammunition; 2–3, Item of Clothing/Armor; 4–5, Money, Jewelry, Gems, or Art Objects; 6, Potions or Other Gear.
Countermeasures. A playful pilfering tell is the faint sound of ethereal giggling. A successful DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check identifies the sound as emanating from the doll. A successful DC 10 Intelligence (Religion) check renders the haunted trap inert for 1 minute by reciting a peaceful prayer.
A character attempting to use a turn undead or destroy undead effect on the trap must succeed a DC 10 spellcasting ability check to render the trap inert for 1 minute (or 1 month if using destroy undead).
Targeting the doll with a hallow spell will permanently dissolve the haunted trap. An example story condition to resolve the playful pilfering would be placing the doll on the grave of one of the area’s victims.
Haunted trap (level 11–16, deadly threat)
This haunted trap is created by the traumatic energy of a violent and unpunished murder spurred by betrayal.
Trigger. This haunted trap is only active once a year on the anniversary of the victim’s murder. Touching or walking over the affected 10-foot square covered in bloodstains triggers the death scream.
Effect. A terrifying wail unleashes psychic agony on all living creatures within 30 feet. Any creature who hears it must succeed on a DC 20 Constitution saving throw. On a failure, they drop to 0 hit points. On a success, they take 55 (10d10) psychic damage.
This haunted trap triggers an undead beacon, making all undead within 120 feet of it aware of its location and drawing them toward it as quickly as possible, without doing something it wouldn’t ordinarily do, like walk into a chasm.
Countermeasures. The bloodstains are the tell for a death scream as they remain as fresh and vivid as the day of the murder, even when the trap is inert. Covering them up with a rug does not affect them, and if painted over or the flooring is replaced, they reappear within 24 hours. A successful DC 15 Intelligence (Investigation) check will uncover the bloodstains, if hidden, and reveal they are supernatural. A successful DC 20 Intelligence (Religion) check renders the death scream inert for 1 minute by uttering prayers for the victim to find peace.
A character attempting to use a turn undead or destroy undead effect on the trap must succeed a DC 20 spellcasting ability check to render the trap inert for 1 minute (or 1 month if using destroy undead).
Targeting the area with a hallow spell will permanently dissolve it. An example story condition to resolve the death scream would be bringing the victim’s murderer to justice.