RPG Evolution: Every Threat, Everywhere, All At Once

High level characters can beat most traps. What to do?

High level characters can beat most traps. What to do?

stmichael.jpg

Saint Michael parish church in Untergriesbach. Fresco at the ceiling: Last Judgment( 1780 ) by Johann Georg Unruhe Picture courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7015698

As we established with The Pit Problem, static obstacles are easily circumvented by higher level characters in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons through a combination of planning, magic, and superhuman skill. The key phrase being "static." A party that has time can overcome most challenges. But a party under duress with multiple threats coming at them at once must plan, coordinate, and use their resources judiciously. For higher level characters, this means throwing a lot of things at them simultaneously.

Impossible Missions​

A visual example of this is Mission Impossible III, in which the high level character Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must rescue an agent from a warehouse. But it's much more complicated, because...
  • They escape in a helicopter...
  • by flying through a wind turbine farm...
  • all while exchanging fire with pursuing enemies...
  • and trying to deactive a bomb in the rescued agent's head that will go off any minute.
It takes the entire team to return fire at their pursuers, fly the helicopter through the whirling turbines, and use a defibrillator to try to defuse the bomb. These factors also affect each other: the gunfire and fancy flying make it difficult to defuse the bomb. The scene sums up the ways you can complicate a simple obstacle (a bomb that goes off, pursuing enemies, running an obstacle course) by adding more and more threats.

Impairment​

Impairing the PCs can make them vulnerable in ways that complicate other threats. Be it flying a helicopter or just magical flight, what makes navigation of an obstacle easy can just as easily be a vulnerability if nullified at the wrong moment. Winged flight is very different from magical flight, while magical flight (or at least the spell) requires concentration. Being restrained creates disadvantage at every turn, requiring double the checks to succeed. Sometimes this can be simple as making the non-optimized character do a job they'd prefer not to (like a non-proficient pilot fly an airship).

Multiple Obstacles​

Jumping over a pit is simple enough; jumping over a pit with another pit just past it can be deadly. The obvious threats are not the ones to worry about. A typical example are pit traps that are more than pit traps, with further obstacles at the bottom of the pit (spikes, poisoned spikes, crushing walls, or all of the above) but they can just as easily be multiple traps in different locations so that trying to avoid one trap triggers the other (see Grimtooth's Traps for numerous examples).

Pursuit​

Carefully exploring a dungeon with a ten-foot pole is a lot easier when there isn't a dragon at your back. PCs lose the luxury of being methodical with pursuers behind them. For this threat to be effective, the pursuer has to be challenging enough to make rushing through obstacles a better choice than simply turning and fighting. This can be cumulative, where increasing number of enemies who catch up with the fleeing PCs make it harder for them to keep fighting.

Time Limits​

D&D 5E moves in six second increments, so to be relevant to combat (which rarely lasts more than a minute), the deadline needs to be imminent or PCs will take their time to finish important tasks. Like the pursuit option, the risk of not completing the task in time needs to have severe consequences when the time limit is up to create a sense of urgency. The looming threat of a massive explosion usually qualifies (although in the case of magical resurrection, as long as the cleric survives in theory not even this matters).

Multiple Threats in Action​

The culmination of my most recent adventure involved two massive airships battling it out in the sky, while the PCs fought in hand-to-hand combat on one of the airships. It took a few rounds to figure out what was going on from within the airship (they were below decks), until they started floating toward the ceiling (as the airship's engine was destroyed, the ship began nosediving towards a nearby mountain). Our 9th-level heroes had to:
  • Fight off waves of grappling clockwork enemies
  • Pick three locks to open a locked door to the docking bay
  • Snap two chains holding their escape craft down
  • Navigate out of the falling larger airship
  • Safely land without being struck by the enemy airship
After finishing off the enemies and picking two of the locks, a hole ripped in the center of the airship, tossing three of the PCs into mid-air (the sorcerer, druid, and ranger). The warlock, rogue, and artificer were left behind. The rogue finished picking the last lock, the warlock smashed the two chains holding their escape craft down, and the artificer cast fly to pursue his falling companions.
Meanwhile, the sorcerer and ranger were in freefall. The druid turned into a large flying creature to catch her companions but kept missing her rolls to actually grab them -- the sorcerer cast web to attach herself to the druid, then cast it again to attach the ranger to them both.

Free from its moorings, the rogue flew the escape craft out through the broken docking bay. The warlock teleported onto the escape craft and the flying artificer caught up with them, clinging to the outside.

Now separated into two groups but still in the midst of two massive airships in ship-to-ship combat, the larger airship fired on the escape craft, piercing one of their engines. The rogue had to pilot through a crash landing, while the druid similarly had to land on the nearest flat surface, unable to hold aloft two of her companions and stuck to them with a web.

Throughout, the threat was always crashing and dying from a great height. A party without the ability to cast teleportation spells or flight would have been in much bigger trouble. Similarly, simple issues like breaking chains or picking a lock can be addressed easily if given enough time.

We played fast and loose with the rules but the PCs did great, and it was an epic finale to the session (the adventure isn't quite over yet though).

Your Turn: How do you make simple obstacles a challenge for high level PCs?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

PJ Coffey

PJ Coffey (they/them)
High level characters can beat most traps. What to do?

Saint Michael parish church in Untergriesbach. Fresco at the ceiling: Last Judgment( 1780 ) by Johann Georg Unruhe Picture courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7015698

As we established with The Pit Problem, static obstacles are easily circumvented by higher level characters in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons through a combination of planning, magic, and superhuman skill. The key phrase being "static." A party that has time can overcome most challenges. But a party under duress with multiple threats coming at them at once must plan, coordinate, and use their resources judiciously. For higher level characters, this means throwing a lot of things at them simultaneously.

Impossible Missions​

A visual example of this is Mission Impossible III, in which the high level character Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must rescue an agent from a warehouse. But it's much more complicated, because...
  • They escape in a helicopter...
  • by flying through a wind turbine farm...
  • all while exchanging fire with pursuing enemies...
  • and trying to deactive a bomb in the rescued agent's head that will go off any minute.
It takes the entire team to return fire at their pursuers, fly the helicopter through the whirling turbines, and use a defibrillator to try to defuse the bomb. These factors also affect each other: the gunfire and fancy flying make it difficult to defuse the bomb. The scene sums up the ways you can complicate a simple obstacle (a bomb that goes off, pursuing enemies, running an obstacle course) by adding more and more threats.

Impairment​

Impairing the PCs can make them vulnerable in ways that complicate other threats. Be it flying a helicopter or just magical flight, what makes navigation of an obstacle easy can just as easily be a vulnerability if nullified at the wrong moment. Winged flight is very different from magical flight, while magical flight (or at least the spell) requires concentration. Being restrained creates disadvantage at every turn, requiring double the checks to succeed. Sometimes this can be simple as making the non-optimized character do a job they'd prefer not to (like a non-proficient pilot fly an airship).

Multiple Obstacles​

Jumping over a pit is simple enough; jumping over a pit with another pit just past it can be deadly. The obvious threats are not the ones to worry about. A typical example are pit traps that are more than pit traps, with further obstacles at the bottom of the pit (spikes, poisoned spikes, crushing walls, or all of the above) but they can just as easily be multiple traps in different locations so that trying to avoid one trap triggers the other (see Grimtooth's Traps for numerous examples).

Pursuit​

Carefully exploring a dungeon with a ten-foot pole is a lot easier when there isn't a dragon at your back. PCs lose the luxury of being methodical with pursuers behind them. For this threat to be effective, the pursuer has to be challenging enough to make rushing through obstacles a better choice than simply turning and fighting. This can be cumulative, where increasing number of enemies who catch up with the fleeing PCs make it harder for them to keep fighting.

Time Limits​

D&D 5E moves in six second increments, so to be relevant to combat (which rarely lasts more than a minute), the deadline needs to be imminent or PCs will take their time to finish important tasks. Like the pursuit option, the risk of not completing the task in time needs to have severe consequences when the time limit is up to create a sense of urgency. The looming threat of a massive explosion usually qualifies (although in the case of magical resurrection, as long as the cleric survives in theory not even this matters).

Multiple Threats in Action​

The culmination of my most recent adventure involved two massive airships battling it out in the sky, while the PCs fought in hand-to-hand combat on one of the airships. It took a few rounds to figure out what was going on from within the airship (they were below decks), until they started floating toward the ceiling (as the airship's engine was destroyed, the ship began nosediving towards a nearby mountain). Our 9th-level heroes had to:
  • Fight off waves of grappling clockwork enemies
  • Pick three locks to open a locked door to the docking bay
  • Snap two chains holding their escape craft down
  • Navigate out of the falling larger airship
  • Safely land without being struck by the enemy airship
After finishing off the enemies and picking two of the locks, a hole ripped in the center of the airship, tossing three of the PCs into mid-air (the sorcerer, druid, and ranger). The warlock, rogue, and artificer were left behind. The rogue finished picking the last lock, the warlock smashed the two chains holding their escape craft down, and the artificer cast fly to pursue his falling companions.
Meanwhile, the sorcerer and ranger were in freefall. The druid turned into a large flying creature to catch her companions but kept missing her rolls to actually grab them -- the sorcerer cast web to attach herself to the druid, then cast it again to attach the ranger to them both.

Free from its moorings, the rogue flew the escape craft out through the broken docking bay. The warlock teleported onto the escape craft and the flying artificer caught up with them, clinging to the outside.

Now separated into two groups but still in the midst of two massive airships in ship-to-ship combat, the larger airship fired on the escape craft, piercing one of their engines. The rogue had to pilot through a crash landing, while the
Your Turn: How do you make simple obstacles a challenge for high level PCs?

I just use Exploration Challenges | Level Up because some clever people have done all the thinking and planning for me.

I suppose if I ran out I could make my own:


It's pretty simple. But then I don't like having to work really hard to prepare for sessions. I'd rather be playing than prepping.
 


Celebrim

Legend
Your Turn: How do you make simple obstacles a challenge for high level PCs?

I've rarely in my 40 years played at much above 10th level of ability but the reasons why you want to make life complicated for a PC don't start and end with making a challenge. Traps in and of themselves are rarely interesting and are usually just points of delay or obstacles that engage a single PC. It's almost always better to engage the whole party in a cooperative challenge and if you can make a trap an ongoing source of complication then that almost always better than it just deducting some hit points.

So some rules:

a) Traps that do ongoing damage are better than traps that do big bursts of damage. For example, a burning oil trap that does 1d8 damage for 4 rounds is more interesting than a fire trap that does 4d8 damage. The goal isn't to do damage necessarily, but to get players involved in creating solutions.
b) If a trap does some big burst of damage, telegraphing the damage to give the party time to try to think of a solution is better than surprising the party. A bomb that goes off for 6d8 damage next round is more interesting than a bomb that explodes for 6d8 damage.
c) Traps that physically isolate a PC or render a PC perpetually threatened are better than traps that don't. The primary interest of pit traps is the forced movement, not the falling damage. The primary interest of a bear trap is that the PC can't move, not the slashing damage. When you combine traps like that with other predicaments - like that bomb that is going to go off in a little bit or ongoing damage from the burning oil - then you've created something interesting.
d) Traps are better when there is some other monster present that exploit the predicament. Monsters are great sources of ongoing damage and disruption of plans. They can intelligently react to what the players are doing or be bombs that will go off in their own right (an approaching ooze for example)
e) Traps are almost always better when some aspect of the trap inflicts an ongoing condition. A burning oil trap that also makes everything super slippery is better than one that does damage. This is also because the greasy effects may endure even if the flame is extinguished. Likewise being greasy may be that bomb that is about to go off: "Oh, no, we are about to be set on fire."
f) All situations are more complicated when there are innocents present that the PC's would prefer (or strongly prefer) not be harmed. If PC's themselves are such high level that they are hard to threaten, forcing them to protect individuals that struggle to protect themselves can provide interest. Maybe "the Justice League" can't be threatened by this situation and it's really a test of whether they can heroically save others.
g) While reinforcements allow players to defeat enemies in detail, they do complicate the situation for spellcasters, extend combats, and create newly evolving tactical challenges. There is a long history in D&D of deliberately nerfing the challenge to the party to allow them to defeat large forces in detail by spreading out the challenge, while still giving the players lots of "wow factor". Also keep in mind that traps with alarms make for good "bombs that are about to go off" in that the party now knows it has limited to extricate themselves from the current problem before it gets worse.

Some caution:

Big cinematic scenes like you see in movies are hard to create without judicious use of DM force. That's because IRL, when given a choice, players will always prefer simple direct solutions that increase the chances of success over the sort of elaborate scenarios with compounding difficulties that you typically see in movies. Players will typically find ways to evade your plans for complicated chase scenes occurring at the last minute with a timer going off by finding solutions that don't wait to the last minute and involve less risky choices. On the other hand, players are also notorious for taking things that should be simple and making them complicated. So my advice would be to just let things happen rather than spending a lot of time fantasizing about how you are going to recreate the scene from some movie, only for the players to scheme around the scene or have some resource that trivializes one or more of the obstacles you planned for. For every dramatic scene that they evade, they are likely to overly complicate something that should be easy. Players get in over their heads all the time.
 
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talien

Community Supporter
Big cinematic scenes like you see in movies are hard to create without judicious use of DM force. That's because IRL, when given a choice, players will always prefer simple direct solutions that increase the chances of success over the sort of elaborate scenarios with compounding difficulties that you typically see in movies. Players will typically find ways to evade your plans for complicated chase scenes occurring at the last minute with a timer going off by finding solutions that don't wait to the last minute and involve less risky choices. On the other hand, players are also notorious for taking things that should be simple and making them complicated. So my advice would be to just let things happen rather than spending a lot of time fantasizing about how you are going to recreate the scene from some movie, only for the players to scheme around the scene or have some resource that trivializes one or more of the obstacles you planned for. For every dramatic scene that they evade, they are likely to overly complicate something that should be easy. Players get in over their heads all the time.
Absolutely! The key is knowing when it's happening (at least with my group, it happens a lot), and then capitalize on it as a DM. The only thing I had planned was the ship going down, with everything listed afterward an ad hoc response to their actions. I had no idea how they were going to get off the ship and neither did they until they did it.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Love the layering of challenges on top of others
When do you know it's enough? (I mean, besides the TPK)

One thing DW and PbtA does really well is the snowball effect, where the 6- and often the 7-9 adds layers of complication, without really any prep needed. GM just needs to honor the fiction and find places to apply a bit more pressure - individually or to the whole party

Cool description of your encounter's challenges @talien sounds like it was a fun session!
 

GreyLord

Legend
High level characters can beat most traps. What to do?

Your Turn: How do you make simple obstacles a challenge for high level PCs?


I play AD&D...

Save or Die...

20 Kobolds...firing bows...with POISON ARROWS??? Yeah...only takes on failed save...

Also...Vampires...Wights...Wraiths...anything with level drain will make players scream...
 

I play AD&D...

Save or Die...

20 Kobolds...firing bows...with POISON ARROWS??? Yeah...only takes on failed save...

Also...Vampires...Wights...Wraiths...anything with level drain will make players scream...
That constant tension and fear is actually what made those games fun. When you survived and gained experience (and maybe levelled up) there was a real sense of accomplishment. Players always needed to be on their game and involved.
 

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