The party enters a large, well-lit room. On the far side of the room they see a cage on a raised platform. Upon entering the room, something in the cage moves: a person who’s clearly seen better days.
“Help me!” she shouts. “I don’t have much time!”
As the cry for help reaches our heroes’ ears, you notice the cage’s roof is slowly sinking. The poor girl will soon be crushed! Any heroic team would spring into action… not noticing the girl, the cage, and much of the floor in front of them is actually an illusion.
Using illusions in traps is nothing new. Illusory flooring is a common form of the pit trap. Illusory treasure is another common trick to pull in players. Despite their common usage, there can be more to these traps than meets the eye.
The core premise of a illusion traps is that some portion of it is lying to the players who are encountering it. Doing this with static illusions can be useful because they seem like real objects that fail to interact with the players properly. The next step up is using illusions with movement and sound. These are much more complicated from the point of view of the trap, but in role play terms they’re no harder to imagine. Let’s look at the common traps and their progression into more elaborate systems.
Common Illusion Traps
The most common and widely used illusion trap is the illusory floor. This trap is slightly unfair in most implementations as it hardly gives the player any time to react, and works best by giving them dexterity saves.While the most common, there are a lot of really simple illusion traps that are used all the time. Here’s just a few:
- False Floor: Covers a pit
- Illusory gold: Heavy rocks with no value
- Banquet Illusion: Spoiled food that harms the players
- Giant Monster: Scares players away, but isn’t actually there
- Chase Illusions: A giant boulder or monster seems to approach the players. It never catches them but forces them down a more deadly path.
These are some of the best examples of common illusions traps that people use. They work well because they are believable things that the players expect to encounter. Of course the floor is intact, why wouldn’t it be? Sure this chest was full of gold! Monsters in a dungeon, that checks out.
Leveling Up Your Illusion Traps
How do we improve on illusion traps? If you want to make them better, you need to understand why they work and what they do. Let’s look at ideas that highlight the strengths of illusions.
What Makes an Illusion Trap that Really Works?
Illusion traps work because someone believes them. If the illusion seems out of place, then the trap seems like a trap. But if the players run into what they already expect to find, they’re more likely to fall for it. Setting up their expectations and meeting them appropriately is core to making illusion traps that really work and pull the player in. The more you can work to alleviate cognitive dissonance, the less likely the player is to think something is up.
What about overly cautious players? They crop up all the time, but that doesn’t mean your illusion needs to be tailored to them. An overly cautious player that won’t act because they’re afraid of something being an illusion is likely to get into all sorts of trouble because of this tendency. Their lack of heroics can easily be exploited with other traps or encounters. If you’re upset that they won’t fall for an illusion because they aren’t trusting, you can ramp up the believability of the illusion.
Interactivity Adds to the Illusion
If you really want to take a trap to the next level with illusions, you add interactivity. The example from the beginning of the article is one such trap. The illusion plays when the heroes enter the room and presumably the “victim” would call out to urge them to hurry more the longer they wait, or call out to them specifically. This can be adapted to all sorts of illusions to make them even better.
The NPC That Wasn’t There
If your illusions are going to interact with the players there’s so much you can do. The illusion is essentially an NPC character that you’ll play, but they are trying to achieve a goal. This goal is usually to get the players to move to a certain location or stay in a spot for a long period of time.
A really good way to make these kinds of illusions work is to make the illusion non-threatening. As opposed to a monster chasing them, an NPC who needs help can keep the heroes busy for a long time. A dying man in a dungeon asking for healing can burn up a player’s spell slots without getting any better. A lost, old woman can slow the party down while an alarm alerts dungeon guards.
Good Illusions Are Flawed
While it may seem counter-intuitive, for story purposes it can really help to make your illusions flawed in some way. An illusion has limits to what it will say. It might repeat itself, or not know how to respond to certain questions. These things make the illusions less effective, but are fantastic story telling devices to let your players figure out that something isn’t right. This is way better than having people roll wisdom or perception checks to tip them off, and you should be looking at passive perception anyway to keep things hidden.
Discovering an Illusion
Once someone encounters an illusion, there’s always a chance they may see through it. If you’re using flawed illusions, the realization is completely on your players. But you still need to play the part of the illusion with some hard rules so they can have this realization in the first place. If you’re doing this right, once the players start acting counter to the illusion you can make the illusion seem erratic just by having it continue to do what it was doing before, ignoring the unfamiliar actions of the players.
It can be common for illusions that are overcome to disappear. This works well for static illusions, since just its existence is the trap itself. But for more complex illusions you can continue to use them to build tension or flavor to a scene rather than just wave them away. Either case works just as well functionally, but be sure to consider the way you can use the illusions to bolster your adventure’s flavor.
Illusions Are Set Dressing
Nine times out of ten, the illusion part of the trap is not the dangerous part. In almost all the instances where you have an illusion, it’s hiding the danger. This is important to remember when designing these traps because the mechanics for how they harm your players can be lifted from anything else. If you have a mechanical trap you really like, use an illusion to make it sneakier.
Use an Illusion Trap Today
We hope these simple examples highlighted some of the core ideas behind using illusions in your traps. Illusions can be traps on their own, add to other traps, or lead players into traps they may never encounter otherwise. If used properly, you can enhance a dungeon with ease and create a story that your players will talk about for years to come.
What’s your favorite use of an illusion trap? Tweet at us.
If you have any great trap ideas you’d like us to talk about, please let us know. You can contact us here.
As always, Happy DMing!