This episode of Trappery brings you the second in a set of exploratory examples, working out the role (or lack of role) of traps in particular situations, and what those traps are likely to look like.
Tomb of the Moon-King
For our next example, I thought I'd take a more trap-friendly setting. I'm still avoiding magic or fantastical tech and looking at relatively plausible options in a realistic setting, because it's much easier to build from realism to fantasy than vice versa. Our setting here is more brutal and less forgiving, but still officially a real-world possibility.
The Vizier is in charge of planning for the tomb of the late Moon-King. The tomb must stand for a hundred thousand years, as the Moon-King decreed. Given the King’s legendary wealth and power, there will undoubtedly be fools eager to loot his tomb in the centuries to come. While this isn’t a major problem if we view it with cold logic – nobody dies, nobody’s hurt, and some wealth gets recirculated into the spend-happy tomb-robber economy – for the Vizier it’s an unthinkable crime that must be punished with the utmost severity. The Moon-King's body and grave-goods must not be defiled, lest his spirit turn from benevolent watch over the land to wrathful vengeance. Running strongly against type, the Vizier is a reliable professional with a personal fondness for the late Moon-King (not to mention an interest in avoiding any future wrath) and will do his best to fulfil the Moon-King's wishes.
The Vizier’s security concerns are:
- Some thieving scav will nick the Moon-King’s stuff;
- Some thieving scav will breach the sanctity of the Moon-King’s tomb and escape unpunished.
Both of these are very real threats – there’s a huge timescale for them to happen in, a huge amount of valuables to attract robbers (who, after a certain period, may not even consider themselves robbers) and widespread knowledge of said valuables. It’s also going to be more or less impossible to build a suitably impressive tomb and simultaneously maintain absolute secrecy about its location, even if the Vizier adopts the scorched-earth policies so beloved of tomb-builders – and in any case, in time, someone would be bound to discover it by accident.
Once the tomb is sealed, only guardian spirits will remain, in the form of clay statues made with the ashes of sacrificed wild beasts. While the Vizier is properly convinced of their power, he knows guardian spirits are not mechanically minded, so there'll be nobody around to respond sensibly to alarms, take prisoners or restock traps. That means traps need to be reliable at stopping intruders, which basically means ‘lethal’. The Vizier will also consider options that render further progress impossible by blocking entire sections of tunnel, collapsing rooms into the earth’s core and so on, although he’d rather minimise damage to the tomb. On the plus side, there are absolutely no bystanders, innocent or otherwise, so collateral damage is a matter of the tomb and its contents, rather than living beings. Not that a few accidental deaths would be of much weight compared to the sanctity of the Moon-King's body.
The Vizier has full access to the Moon-Kingdom’s treasuries, knowledge and skill. Any trap they can devise, he can build into the tomb. It probably falls somewhere between ‘official’ and ‘military’ in terms of approach – they’re not expecting to fend off invading armies, but they have access to the same resources. The targets of these traps are “anything remotely human-sized that gets into the tomb”. Technology is somewhere between mediaeval and Renaissance.
We can tell what the Vizier is likely to implement. Sudden, brutal death. Oh, the tomb should certainly have cryptic messages warning of the horrible death awaiting any intruders, and some vicious-looking obstacles to put off the easily-scared, but for dealing with determined tomb-robbers there’s no substitute for killing. With the tomb long lost and forgotten in four or five centuries, they’ll have all the time in the world to puzzle out intricate riddles, prod stones with 10’ poles, climb back out of pits and otherwise overcome any obstacle that isn’t lethal. So there's really no room for mercy: we’re talking about fiendishly cunning and refined instruments of murder. They should give no hint of their presence right up until someone’s head is rolling along the floor without the company of their body. In corridors and so on, anything that doesn’t cause mass devastation is probably fine; in more delicate rooms with destructible contents, we want traps that are inimical to life but will leave ornate carvings and precious sarcophagi untouched.
Tomb-Building for Fun and Profit
Accurate as the earlier summary was, we need some more specific security points for the Vizier to focus on so he can work out countermeasures.
Anyone breaking into the tomb at all is the most fundamental part of the problem. There’s very little he can do to prevent it entirely, but significant effort should be devoted to making it very difficult to physically enter the tomb at all. This is mostly a matter of location and building. Putting the tomb somewhere inaccessible will make it harder for aspiring robbers or pillaging armies to get there, and so reduce the number of people who try their luck. Making the tomb solid and well-sealed will also make a big difference: it takes a lot of determination – or time – to break through solid stone walls fifteen foot thick. Basically these measures ensure that for many potential intruders, it’s just too much effort to defile the tomb. It’s analogous to the ID checks and barred windows in the last post; none of them stop determined professionals, but they take out the low-hanging fruit of opportunistic crime and amateurs.
If they make it through the walls, our putative tomb-robbers (let’s call them Laura and Nebraskie) are probably pretty committed to the job and have some idea what they’re doing. They might have exploited an earthquake-induced breach or simply found a hole someone else made, but that’s their problem. At this point some active countermeasures are needed.
As any fule no, given a limited supply of countermeasures and an unlimited pool of potential tomb-robbers, the best defence is one that isn’t used up. At this point, Laura and Nebraskie still haven’t done any actual defiling – it’s even possible they’re idiots or foreigners, and therefore don’t know what they’re dealing with here. The sensible thing to do here is to place prominent warnings to would-be robbers at key locations. This means any likely entrance points (such as the entrances used in building, even though later blocked) and perhaps in the outer ring of the tomb complex, in case someone tunnels in from an unexpected direction. The warnings explain the history of the place and the majesty of the Moon-King, detail the horrible wrath certain to fall on anyone foolish enough to disturb his spirit, and allude vaguely to more specific and immediate wraths that will strike down anyone who doesn’t turn back now. They will also appeal to national conscience and legend by reminding intruders that the Moon-Kingdom will be in danger if the spirit is roused to anger. With any luck, these warnings will get rid of Laura and Nebraskie without a single spring-loaded spear being discharged. This isn’t a matter of mercy – 99.9% of possible intruders are entirely deserving of slow and horrible death, to the Vizier’s mind – but one of pragmatic use of limited resources.
A second point to bear in mind is that intruders have all the time in the world to penetrate the tomb’s defences, and perhaps successive waves will learn from each others’ mistakes. Therefore, it’s essential to keep things innovative and surprising. The first collapsible floor over a pit of acid will get results, but by the third Laura and Nebraskie will be pretty blasé about the whole business. Once they’ve seen a couple of skeletons impaled on spears bursting from the ceiling, or found a trigger-stone that sets a corridor collapsing, they’ll know to look out for those things. The Vizier will try to make sure each trap is fresh and unexpected, keeping thieves nervous and eking the maximum killy death out of every spiky thing.
For the most part, the Vizier will plan increasingly serious measures as we get closer to the actual burial chamber. Intrusion into the outer corridors is worthy of sudden and ignominious death, but if someone’s made it all the way to the antechamber, it’s really time to consider Plan B. At that stage, damage to the tomb is less of a concern than stopping the thieves from disturbing the Moon-King, and even killing them is a secondary problem. The innermost ring of security is likely to feature heavyweight traps that will affect the tomb complex itself, blocking corridors or burying rooms under tons of rock to make sure nobody gets away. Spreading out a bit, key rooms will feature their own dangers – the shrine room, the armoury and the treasury are all likely to have special appeal for robbers and therefore need special protection. Traditionally dramatic irony is called for in the construction of such traps, but the Vizier isn’t hidebound.
The Vizier is intelligent enough to know that boredom, wasted effort and uncertainty are great assets in his deterrent strategy.
Tomb robbers are, for the most part, hoping to acquire great riches for limited effort. They may be willing to take risks towards that end, but there's only so much work they want to put in. Fabulous wealth is an attractive proposition, but at a certain point, the cost of wasted time, resources and risk outweighs the limited rewards that seem to be actually achievable. If they spend days chipping through stone blocks, only to find a completely empty room, their enthusiasm for tomb-robbing will diminish appreciably.
So the Vizier will not only make the tomb itself difficult to access, as mentioned earlier, but hinder progress within in. There will be many doors, all of them heavy and sealed. Access between the major chambers will be particularly limited, forcing intruders to retrace their footsteps and making it hard work to get any treasure out of the tomb.
Boredom is a good start, but not enough. Nor are simple arrays of traps the most effective option. If intruders can work out that there's one trap in each corridor and one on every chest, their work becomes predictable and even reassuring. Similarly, a tomb where every single flagstone is trapped and spikes bristle from every wall is very intimidating, but after a while intruders will settle into a kind of routine apprehension. They know what they're dealing with, and can tell when it's disarmed. It's performance anxiety, a matter of whether they're good enough to deal with it.
That's not what the Vizier wants. He wants constant, heart-stopping dread. The perpetual fear that the next flagstone is the deadly one, that any moment now horrible death will descend from somewhere, but nobody can tell where. He wants intruders constantly on edge, worried that they're becoming complacent, wondering whether their failure to find a trap on the chest means there actually isn't one, or they just haven't found it yet. Wondering whether the trap they found was a decoy. Wondering whether the other trap they found, concealed by the decoy, is also a decoy. Polishing the fruit at the bottom of the bowl. Uncertainty is one of the most stressful things around, and uncertainty about serious danger just about tops the list.
At the same time, sporadic danger and unpredictable rewards make extreme measures inefficient. If every inch of the place was full of traps, it's tempting to start thinking about drastic steps like slowly demolishing it, brick by brick, with long-handled tools, while wearing heavy armour, until you find a cache of gold. Apart from anything else, there must be a stupendous heap of treasure buried here to justify such heavy-handed protection. But when you know most of it isn't trapped, it's more difficult to mentally justify the huge effort involved.
Rewards are the other side of this dilemma. If a long corridor full of traps ends predictably in a roomful of treasure, tomb robbers will patiently work their way through until they can loot the place. But if rewards are unpredictable, decision-making once again gets thrown off balance. Is it really worth going through this deadly-seeming corridor? Will there actually be anything there?
So the Vizier doesn't lay out traps with perfect tactical precision. That sort of thing is sensible enough when the intruders know the exact layout of a complex and the location of all the key features, but that's not the case here. Tomb robbers are likely to be fumbling their way around with only limited ideas of where they're headed, and if traps indicate the likely location of valuables, that's only going to help them. Moreover, he's trying to avoid doing anything predictable, to mess with intruders' heads as much as possible (metaphorically and sometimes literally). The more intruders can be persuaded to just get the hell out of there, the fewer have a chance of actually looting the place. In practical terms, that means eccentricity. Sometimes there will be a long, elaborate corridor consisting largely of traps, which ends in a door painted on solid rock. Sometimes there will be a trap in the middle of a boring room, just to catch intruders unawares. Sometimes, as I mentioned earlier, there will be multi-layer traps.
Of course, there's always tradeoffs to make. Leaving aside the Vizier's mind games, there are practical limits on trap placement. Cost will eventually become a factor even for the Moon-Kingdom; you can't make a tomb infinitely large and deadly. Space is obviously another one: there's a limit on how big the tomb can be, and another on how many traps can be physically fitted in, particularly bearing in mind the need for actual architecture and tomb goods, and the likelihood of traps interfering with each other if overcrowded. Thirdly, traps are a vital feature of this tomb, but its ultimate point is to be the eternal resting place of the spirit of the Moon-King, and those objectives conflict at times.
A GM intervenes
It's always tempting to create the perfect defence, a tomb that is - to all intents and purposes - impregnable. It's not necessarily all that difficult either, depending on what system you're using. Fundamentally, though, if you're using a tomb in a game, pregning it is almost certainly the point.
So a sensible way to justify imperfection - aside from human fallibility, the effects of time, failings of old technology and so on - is to let the Moon-King's sensibilities take priority. Technically speaking there's no particular reason why a small granite box in a small granite chamber in the centre of a cubic mile of traps can't keep the Moon-King happy forever contemplating the grandeur of the universe, or something; but having his spirit demand a grand palace to wander around is an ideal excuse for having architectural and cosmetic considerations override tactical ones. And while his spirit isn't going to set off any traps, it won't be too happy if its grand chambers are full of ugly spiky machinery, or liable to be destroyed by collapsing tunnels. Or indeed, full of dead commoners.
This is a fairly understandable, and true-to-life, basis for disregarding the logical security step of having the entire tomb completely filled with close-fitted stone blocks impregnated with chemical poisons, and preferably radioactive.
Okay, I still haven't offered up any actual traps, and I should really do that. Before I start, there's a bit of a decision to be made. How much of a showman is the Vizier?
This is really a GMing decision that will affect the feel of the dungeon - and this is fundamentally going to be a dungeon adventure. The Vizier could favour ironic justice, where traps reflect the room they're in and the actions of intruders. He could have a sense of drama that calls for showy traps tied in to major features of the tomb. Or he could be ruthlessly pragmatic, and tend towards innocent flagstones that bring sudden ignominious death. Each of these options will produce a particular effect.
The Ironically Retributive tendency would probably look an awful lot like this one. The intruders wind up the machinery that brings their own death. Here's another example:
A great chest, studded with precious stones, stands open in the centre of the dias. It is flanked by guardian statues, arranged so that anyone going for the chest must clamber awkwardly over outstretched weapons or tails. The statues look fearsome, but are entirely harmless; the chest is another matter. It is built on the bear-trap principle, with a heap of treasure inside weighing down the trigger just enough to keep it poised. As soon as Laura lifts out a handful of gold, the trigger is released and the chest's lid snaps shut on her outstretched arms, trapping her (and probably breaking an arm in the process). A chain stretching from the chest's lid yanks a stopper from the ceiling above, and coins begin to pour from a conical chamber above, burying her forever...
The Dramatic Vizier favours something a little more showy...
In the Forge Chamber, the dragon statues all have eyes of solid gold. They are also full of pressurised air and iron powder, pumped up and quickly patched when built. When Nebraskie pries out an eye, the seal is broken and the explosive mixture bursts out over them and their pleasantly flammable light source (at least in the Vizier's time). The result is a sudden explosion that should deal with the insolent thief, while leaving little evidence of what killed them to warn future intruders.
The Pragmatic Vizier is much more straightforward. He builds a random area of corridor over thin struts that will collapse under human weight. He attaches the inside of a door to a spring-release spear. He places razor-sharp wires around neck height on a steeply-sloping corridor, to catch intruders slithering down - and others at ankle height nearby to catch anyone who spots the first lot. He is, in many ways, the exact person to build our classic "corridor tax" traps, which burst on you for no apparent reason.
As before, the article's long enough that I won't fully detail the traps and their countermeasures here unless anyone asks. Next time, I might have a look at magical traps and traplike spells...