This begins a new series at Many-Sided Dice about traps and making interesting ones. We’ll dial in on a running format in the coming weeks.
The end of the canyon was all hard-packed dirt, bleached almost white by the sun. If Kurt had a team of ditch-diggers he might have been able to form a defense–but they were coming too fast. Seven, eight… it was hard to get a count, with them bobbing and weaving between the rocks. Their whoops and growls carried through the hard stone valley, an echo of coming and certain brutality.
They were herding him. That was certain. He’d been around too long and escaped too many ambushes to miss that, but knowing didn’t do a thing except worry him more. They wanted him in this dead-end. They wanted to nudge him to do something that would end up being phenomenally unwise.
His eyes darted around, hard dirt… sand… a sheer rocky face and hell of a climb up it… no trees… no doors… he was halfway up the cliff before he realized just how screwed he really was.
History: The gnolls of the Elos desert, the western fringe of it anyway, are amongst the most feared scavengers and nomads in the world. They breed quickly, grow up in the harshest climate on three continents, and survive by guile, trickery, and phenomenal physical power. Where the orcs breed warriors, the gnolls breed a low cunning and desire only for survival (at the expense of any not in the tribe).
Their genk’wei, or holy ones, are revered for their being blessed by the Twins–their double headed god–and play an integral part of most foraging and hunting parties. They also “Keep the Grounds”, a ritualistic form of farming whereby they set up brutal and deadly traps in gnoll territories intended to kill passersby for easy scavenging later. The Clutch is a particularly deadly gnollish trap, coming across one should alert the knowledgeable adventurer that here, there be packs of monsters.
System: The clutch is a powdery mixture of batrack (a root indigenous to the Elos Desert, used most commonly for pain killers), crushed haberstone, and dried bile. When properly mixed , cooked, dried, and ground, it resembles a fine sandy-colored dust. Its composition and look make it extraordinarily difficult to notice (Passive Perception DC 16), and even if noticed it appears to be just sandy dust, possibly blown in naturally, covering rocks and outcroppings making them somewhat more difficult to grip firmly. Important to note, this description should be casual, and is best left open to interpretation (rather than a more forced “that rock seems covered in a mysterious dust”).
Gnolls “keeping the ground” will blow the Clutch onto climbing surfaces and other places where would-be travelers might be inclined to touch and sweat. Cliff-sides, large rocks, tall desert trees, along the downridge toward a water source, etc.
Should any PC be wearing gloves and shoes, the Clutch really only makes the climbing more difficult (add +4 to any climb DC, as the powdery sand slips and slides across surfaces, making them hard to grip). However, should a PC come into contact with the Clutch, it takes effect after 2 turns.
At the end of two turns (if in combat) or a suitable period of time (thirty seconds or so, out of combat), they must make a very difficult Con Save (DC 17) or suffer the effects of the Clutch. If they are successful, they are unaffected.
Upon failing their save, they are paralyzed. Their body goes rigid and unresponsive and, in most situations, they fall. This fall is especially devastating given the complete rigidity of their body (most falls are more easily shrugged off due to one’s ability to land on one’s feet, stay limp, cushion the impact, etc.). Treat the fall as a critical hit (double the damage dice).
Identifying the Clutch, what it is and how it works, can be done either by scrutinizing the powder or the effects of the substance. The PC investigating this may make a Nature Check DC 15 to understand exactly what it is and where it comes from. If they beat that check by 5 they may also know how to make it.
The effects will wear off on their own after roughly 5 minutes, but the process can be sped along considerably should anyone have an appropriate Herbalism Kit (DC 13) to mix a quick purgative tincture that targets the exact effect. Without the Herbalism Kit, one may use an Alchemy Kit or Component Pouch at a disadvantage.
Making the Trap Easier/Harder:
- Placement – The hallmark of the Clutch is how natural it looks and the delay in effect. Placing it higher up on a cliff-face will make noticing it even harder (one would not get a Passive Perception attempt at all until one is right there nearly touching it on the way up). Having the Clutch in a particularly sandy area will make it even harder for a PC to know something is wrong. On the other-hand, finding it in unlikely places will raise a flag. Why is there sandy white-ish dust on these rocks in a place with only green overgrowth? You subtly scale the difficult up and down by how plausible the environment is around it. Also, keep in mind, the higher their climb, the more deadly the fall will be.
- Trigger – The trigger (skin contact) is hard to fiddle with. But, one can make the dust more likely to have an effect with the introduction of natural elements like wind blowing it around while they’re climbing (to bring it contact with their face, unless they cover up. Also, it is up to any DM to decide what the contents of things like Climber’s Kits really are–if you want to make this safer for some of your party, you can make the assumption that a kit has some form of climber’s glove.
- Combat – This trap, combined with gnolls in general, can make for a horrific encounter. An overwhelming number of them racing toward the party with the party’s best chance at controlling things being a climb up some rocks would take one or two unwary PC’s out of a fight for a round or two. A few gnolls or monsters already up that cliff-side might entice the over-eager to climb up there to kill them–only to fall into that baited trap too easily.
Ser Broadways was screaming, tears streaming down his face. A powerful man brought low, a leader who lost another follower, a mentor who had to watch the end come to his own student. The sound of his anguish was the sound of the world breaking.
Kallie watched. It had taken them nearly an hour to pull Wainwright free. His body was bloody, skin slipping in places—it made her nauseated. She held back her wretch out of respect, but finally should just couldn’t watch. Brodie’s hands were smoldering and wet. And the most sorrowful part was his rage as whatever faith or power in him protected him from the same horror that was quickly decomposing his protege, his friend, his lover.
The ground trembled. Uncaring.
History: The gnolls of the Svim jungles share a common genetic ancestry with their northern desert cousins. And their towering trees and murky dark depths are no less terrfying to the unwary than the harsh and unforgiving wasteland the desert gnolls call home. But, for over two hundred years, they were under the rule and thumb of a great green dragon—a true emerald curse—and their worship of the Twins became a trinity whereby the Twin dog-headed god still snapped and howled its connection with the world and survived, but a new head emerged… bright green, angry, vengreful and vain.
The Svim gnolls learned many things from their green god. They learned to pervert the land fundamentally, not just use it. As such, there are few more dangerous places to venture than into gnoll infested jungles where the very ground itself waits to snatch up the wayward merchant or fool.
The getch’hauff, or Cargo Hold, is one of the most devious and telling of how mad the jungle gnolls have grown. Their genk’wei (shamans) make such things for the benefit of the tribe, but also to hasten the return of their (long dead) green god by making the world in its image.
System: A Cargo Hold is made from a natural or artificial quaking bog. A natural Cargo Hold is extremely difficult to notice (Passive Perception DC 19, advantaged if one has the Outlander background or is a Druid). An artificial one is generally more easily seen (Passive Perception 16, advantaged if one has experience with jungle gnolls).
A quaking bog is a relatively thick layer of earth, soil, foliage, etc. that grows on top of a swampy and stagnant water source like a small pond or marsh. It isn’t until one is walking on it that the ground begins to feel very soft and possibly wet. The Cargo Hold is made on such a bog at least 30ft. on a side (though some have been made larger). The ground is most “firm” toward the edges and becomes unstable toward the center. As such, many don’t realize they’re on uncertain ground until already in the middle of it. It is a Nature check DC 13 for anyone realizing what they’re standing on.
The first 5ft over the bog, one may notice (Passive Perception 15) that the ground is wet and soft. The next 5ft (toward the center), and the difficult to notice is 10. The center 10ft by 10ft square is a difficult 5 to notice. Anyone devoting their entire attention (action and movement) to balancing carefully and not disturbing the ground, is safe. This means those with a bonus action they can use to move or escape have a chance to do so safely. For all others, any movement at all, once noticing the ground is treacherous, or any action taken will cause the ground to entirely give way and shift like a roiling quicksand of soil and mud and foliage and muck–swallowing the offender.
For most quaking bogs (Nature Check DC 13), the fear is mud and water–a low level threat that isn’t terribly horrifying. They’re never deep (maximum 5 to 8 feet) and are not home to any life of note (predatory animals, etc.). But, what makes a Cargo Hold different than just a quaking bog is the ritualized incantations of the gnollish priests. They conjure, learned from their generations of subjugation by their dragon patron, acidic horrors underneath to eat away the flesh of the trespassers and leave them the loot. The weakest few of the tribe, every moon, are sent into the Cargo Hold to bring out the riches—they, without exception, die in the attempt. To the glory of the Green God.
Once having fallen in, a PC should be considered to be engulfed by a largely immobile gelatinous cube in the form of a pool of acidic, reactive muck. The Athletics DC to escape—if one is adjacent to safe ground at the edges—is 14. On a success, they pull themselves free, covered in muck. For anyone farther in, this check is disadvantaged due to the inability to gain purchase on anything but the muck. On a success, the PC moves 5ft. for free (presumably they will want to move towards the edge). They are, afterward, considered Grappled (movement 0) and must make another Athletics check to move another 5ft. The struggle is fierce and gravity is not on one’s side. Once at the edge, their next attempt is at the easier non-disadvantaged Save.
At the end of any turn they remain in the bog, they take 2d6 acid damage. At the end of any turn out of the bog, but covered in the muck, they only take 1d6 acid damage. Neutralizing the acid requires chalk, talcum, or some other inert powder liberally spread around and dousing the victim in it; but, low level cantrips like Prestidigitation can clear it up instantaneously. Wiping and scraping it off, however, requires an action and there is a cumulative 20% chance with each attempt to clear it all off sufficient to stop taking acid damage.
Anyone who has taken more than half their HP in acid damage from the Cargo Hold will bear a minor scar (as per the DMG Lingering Injuries entry). Anyone brought to 0 HP will have a major scar.
Making this Trap Easier/Harder:
- Placement – Counter intuitively, it is more dangerous to place the bog amidst many other swampy and sink-hole style obstacles. Once the party finds themselves sinking in mud or wading across ponds routinely, they will not much fear a possible dunk. Placing the Cargo Hold nakedly apart from other such things will raise suspicions and create natural avoidance. Also, consider the merits of leaving a body on the surface or have someone hanging in a tree above the center to entice the party to move closer underneath (and then plunge).
- Trigger – If one wants to save the party some struggle, one could make the needed weight to trigger the bog be something higher than most–say, 300 lbs. This will almost guarantee that most won’t cause it to truly trigger and at worst the fighter and barbarian sorts of characters might end up in the muck—though more likely they’ll avoid it entirely after everyone gets past it.
- Combat – This, like all gnoll traps, just thrives with a combat. gnolls are ambush predators, survivalists, conniving… they often make camp placing a Cargo Hold between them and the likeliest way someone might come snooping on the off-chance that they can lure someone into attacking and thus taking the plunge. You can up the difficulty of the trap by having gnolls rob the party in the night (they rush in not to kill, but to steal everything not nailed down, quickly, and then running away) and let the party chase them into certain death.