There’s a good reason for keeping some of the old Grimtooth’s Traps (among other) books handy.
So, you’ve decided to maybe bump off a few of the PCs in tonight’s game, huh? Well, you’ve come to the right place if you’re using anything in the Grimtooth’s Traps collection. These traps books have been around a while in various forms. Some of us OGs might just happen to have the original Flying Buffalo versions lying around. I prefer the collections because they put all or most of them in one place.
There is also a 3rd Ed D&D book called the Book of Challenges that comes in handy for designing dungeon rooms, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. We’ll discuss it further in another article. There are countless other resources throughout the years, too many to effectively list here.
Some DMs/GMs shy away from the use of “death” traps. Like they’re afraid of mangling a character or something.
I’ve always had a very light-hearted, easy going approach to traps. I’ve ground up a few characters in them. Not all of them are an instant TPK, but a good number of them do require the attention of a skilled healer afterward. That’s something you just don’t get in the newest incarnation of D&D.
If I’m running a game and I say, “click,” everyone had better be prepared to roll a saving throw of some kind. Mechanical traps are the easy ones. When we start mixing in magic- that’s where things get really exciting. Oh, plus boobytrapped/cursed items. I might have a sadistic streak in my personality? (LOL!!!)
I used to build dungeons around the notion of being a gauntlet of traps with a few creatures strewn in for good measure. Some of those dungeons had some really sweet loot, though. I find that one has to entice the characters and even the players to a certain extent. Gauntlets of Ogre Power, +5 Holy Avenger, +3 Sword of Sharpness, and the occasional +1/+3 Dragon Slayer serve as good treasure should the group survive. (*Back in the day we had a lot of Fighters, Barbarians, and Assassins in the group.)
But what about the ones that get squished?
Back in the old days, if a character ate it in a particularly brutal trap, Grimtooth’s or something I made up, we let the player roll up a new character two levels lower than the party. We let the new characters roll for loot plus whatever the group salvaged off of the squished character. Usually the group was pretty cool about helping out if someone lost a character in a dungeon in such a grim way.
Then it was just a matter of working the new character into the party as soon as they left the dungeon to sell treasure or replenish supplies. I recall a few rare occasions when the new characters wandered into the dungeon and rescued the preexisting group. Most of the time cherished, long term characters would miraculously survive certain doom with clever thinking and lucky rolls.
Proper prevention is worth a pound of premade characters.
Of course, the best way to prevent character death was to be on the constant lookout for traps. It was sometimes hilarious watching the group meticulously checking every square for pressure plates, tripwires, shifting floors, subtle inclines and holes in the walls. Sometimes they’d get lucky and find a secret door or a concealed room instead.
I had a player take a dwarven miner into a dungeon once who managed to circumvent several traps and monsters by tunneling straight through the walls of the dungeon. I was caught off guard by this maneuver and really had no counter for it the first time it happened. I’ve also seen high level spells used to flood, gas, or detonate some dungeon areas. (*Note, above-ground structures are particularly vulnerable to kabooms from the sky.)
After death traps really started taking their toll in the game, a couple of players got really smart and started playing Thieves. They’d warm up the percentile dice and then we didn’t see as many characters die in trap dungeons. Monsters, on the other hand…
After 3.5 or 4th Ed, traps fell out of style.
Dungeons in D&D just ain’t what they used to be. Or at least in 5E people are slightly more attached to their characters. 4th Ed was fun because of the timing elements and the way the action economy worked. 4th also saw a lot of monsters get nerfed pretty bad.
Nowadays players tend to put a lot of thought and careful background planning into their new D&D characters. It makes the DM look bad when someone’s prized Tiefling Bard of Twitch and Instagram fame buys the farm in the most awful corridor trap the DM could find in Grimtooth’s Traps. It would upset the cosplayer/player horribly, and we just can’t have that.
OSR games usually aren’t hampered by such unofficial restrictions, of course. Most of us OGs are used to the possibility of being reckless in a dungeon being the end of a character. A lot of us don’t get overly attached to a character for just that reason. Some GM/DMs are more kind than others, though.
The best advice for handling traps in most games:
Talk about it before characters are made. That way someone might want to make a Thief. The group might want to hire some added help. (Alas, poor Jimmy the Torchbearer, back for more dungeon romps.) Knowing death could be lurking around any corner, the players may wish to brush up on Dungeoneering 101 somewhere. There are some key survival tactics out there if you read up.
On the other hand, if the prospect of traps that can literally swallow a character whole terrifies or slightly concerns the group? Please refrain from using them? Especially new players might be turned off of gaming if one of their characters runs afoul of one of the Grimtooth style character grinders.
The other rule I’ve incorporated into my game over the years is the “Click” Rule. If the DM/GM says “Click!” while the group is wassailing around in a dungeon, we go around the table and each player gets to describe one action before the trap goes off. I forget exactly who came up with this rule, but I love it. It has made traps far more interesting when players do all kinds of crazy, paranoid things because they think the trap is on them.
Remember, as a GM/DM you always have the option to not use traps or nerf them.
You can always select a less lethal option or just omit the trap all together. When I make a Five Room Dungeon, (*See Johnn Four’s Five Room Dungeon Guide for more.) I like to make at least one of the rooms some sort of trap element. There’s also usually a room with a puzzle or special lock.
The idea, of course, is to make the players think on their feet a bit more. If every room has a trap, the group is likely going to get bored. Or start finding ways to set everything off without their precious characters getting greased. (Alas, poor Sparky the Squirrel familiar. May he rest until summoned again.) But, if carefully planned and executed, traps can be a heap of fun.
I hope you found some use of this article. Traps are one of my favorite dungeoneering aspects to any fantasy game. Thank you for being here. I appreciate you. Game on!
Disclaimer: Never build or use any traps in real life. Someone could be seriously injured or worse. In short- It’s just not worth it. Be kind. Talk it out.