Recently, my players decided to rob the wealthiest noble family in a drow city. I didn’t see this coming, even though I should have. Of course I should have. It was money, dangled in front of PCs. What else would they have done?
Anyway, I’m running this drow city off the cuff. I have a map showing the strongholds of the noble families. I know the goals, styles and key members of these families. Everything else, I make up as needed. It’s a refreshing break from my habit of overpreparing. But it did mean that I needed an awesome security system on the fly. I mean, the drow don’t mess around. The wealthiest family’s treasure horde is going to be well-protected. Guards and pressure plates aren’t going to cut it. They need something awesome.
It also turns out that this wealthy family are talented psionists. This makes it clear what the defence should be: something that attacks the mind. A psionic dungeon.
Below is an overview of how I ran it. Consider it inspiration. The great thing about a trap that works on the characters’ minds is that there are no rules and no limitations. You can cheat, fudge dice rolls and break the mechanics, and it all works in context. This gives you tremendous power but it means you have to be smart. If you go too crazy, it leaves your players with no clues on how to succeed.
Step 1: Triggering the Trap
The party broke into the nobles’ vault. They went down some stairs and beat a puzzle. (Literally. Instead of solving the riddle on the door, they broke it down.) Down some more stairs and they fought undead guardians. And so on. The rooms and stairs are all the same layout, a pattern that repeated as they descended towards the treasure.
Then, in one room, was nothing but an old man. He talked with them for a while. They tried to bluff him, he tried to get them to surrender. Talking lead to an impasse, so they drew their weapons.
(While they were talking, the old man was infiltrating their minds. Everything from here is an illusion.)
The party rolled for initiative. They moved first, rolled okay, did a small amount of damage and… he died. A glancing blow killed him and the encounter ended.
Step 2: Work in the Weirdness
The party was confused – a lone enemy implies a boss fight but it was over in one dice roll – but they moved on. Down the stairs, another identical room. Here, they encountered the previous villain, one who had taken an entire arc to defeat. He taunted them, saying he had laid this trap for them, then disappeared. The party found themselves facing a room of shadowy creatures.
I’m proud of this part. The party thought they were fighting enemies, but there was no one else in the room. Whenever they attacked one of the shadows, they hit one of their allies. Here is how I ran the encounter:
- There was one shadow creature per party member. Each shadow represents one of the characters.
- All dice rolls and damage tracking were secret.
- I faked the initiative rolls for the shadows so that a PC moves, then their shadow creature moves, then the next PC, etc.
- The shadow creature does the same thing that the corresponding PC did. For example, if the fighter attacks the cleric’s shadow creature, then the fighter’s shadow creature attacks the cleric. If the fighter hit, the shadow creature hits. The shadow does the same damage to the cleric as the fighter did to the shadow creature.
- I added some For example, a PC’s fire bolt might look like a shadow’s arrow (that mysteriously does fire damage). The shadows moved around the battlefield as I thought would make sense, as mirroring the PCs’ movement would be too obvious. The key is for the shadows to hit when the PCs hit, miss when they miss and do the same damage/status changes.
This results in a weird fight. The shadow creatures will appear to attack at random, as opposed to the usual tactics (like whoever is closest or whoever is weakest). People were getting opportunity attacks against creatures on the other side of the room. Straight away, it was obvious that something strange was happening. As to what that strangeness is…
Your group might figure it out straight away, or not at all. For me, it worked perfectly: the party was bloodied but still fighting when they figured it out:
Warlock: I deal 12 damage and the target is immobilised.
Me: Okay. Bard, the shadow attacks you. It gets… *fake rolls* 28 vs AC, I assume that hits? And it does… *more fake rolls* 12 damage and you are immobilised.
Warlock: Wait, how much damage??
This led to a lot of awesome reflection (“ohh, when I pushed one of them, they pushed us next turn.”) Then the PCs did nothing, so the shadows did nothing.
When they snapped out of it, the shadows were gone. The PCs were standing in a circle, weapons trained on each other.
Step 3: Twist the Screw
By now, they were feeling annoyed and even more confused. Down they went to the next level. This time, the stairs were different. They were longer and buckled. Small differences, but enough to break the pattern.
In the next room were mountains of gold coins, jewels and other treasure. Friends of the PCs (maybe even dead ones) were there, inviting them to take some of the treasure. Some eeriness here – strange sounds, shadows without explanation, a sense of vertigo – goes a long way.
When they tried to leave, (for some reason the gold didn’t tempt them…) the battle started.
Step 4: The Battle Within
The gold melted away, as did the walls, ceiling and stairs. The floor of the vault floated in a void. People from the characters’ pasts – parents, fallen allies, the warlock’s patron and others – appeared and attacked them.
When one of these enemies fell, the old man appeared. He revived the fallen enemy, taunting the party. He said that this was his realm and the fight would last until they all died. Normal attacks did not affect him. He could float in the void, teleport and do pretty much whatever he wanted.
This battle is normally unwinnable but, of course, one of the party members had the means of escaping. In my case, one of the PCs had a psionic sword – an ancient relic of incredible power. This sword could injure the old man, much to the old man’s shock.
(If you can’t think of anything, pick a PC at random to deal the damage and figure out what makes them special later. A divine blessing? A strange or powerful mind? Magic jewellery?)
Step 5: Back to Reality
After enough damage, the old man leaves the battle and returns to reality. The platform begins to disintegrate and collapse into the void. The PCs can try to follow the old man back to the real world. If they fail, they risk losing themselves in the void forever.
Those that return face the old man. He is confused, as no one has ever escaped his trap before…
What makes this work is the slow immersion. Treat it like horror – the scariest things start normal, introduce unease, then steadily ratchet up the terror. Horror would work but for this, I went with weirdness instead of fear. Everything seemed normal, then was normal-in-a-fantasy-context, then grew weirder and weirder…
Take this idea, run with it, make it your own. Then tell me what you did because I’m curious what other people make of it.
You might like my free book because it gives you many ideas.