Applying this to goblins and other dungeon denizens can give an adventuring group a real challenge, and makes for a far more interesting pit trap. Instead of the traditional spiked pit, have a tribe of goblins cover a perfectly dug cone trap; any number of creatures could be at the bottom (including an actual antlion). A trap dug at the critical angle of repose will make it hard for any adventurer who can’t fly to make it out (throw in an anti-magic field to really get people concerned). Escaping will be an especially difficult task due to the tenuous terrain. Just as running across a sandy beach is challenging, trying to crawl out of a sandy hole, while wearing armor and other gear, at a critical angle will exhaust characters quickly. Include a creature at the bottom – a giant worm, for example – or even sharpened sticks smeared in goblin feces and those characters are in for some serious trouble. Instead of running in and murdering the inhabitants of a dungeon while simply taking damage from any number of traps that damage, adventurers encountering this kind of trap will learn very quickly the dangers of dungeon delving. Passive traps can bring a world of hurt to the unwary, but they’re easily avoided for characters that pay attention. As keen as passive traps are, dungeon dwellers use specific tactics to stay alive in their hostile environment. On occasion, this involves proactive, dynamic action.
Dynamic traps are a great way of getting around especially paranoid characters; that is, those traps which have at least a semi-intelligent brain behind them to adapt to situations. Trapdoor spiders provide and interesting example. Some dig a small series of tunnels with entrances and exits, others a single colony, then reinforce the inside with a tube of webbing. One thing they generally have in common, though it isn’t a hard and fast rule, is a cork-like, hinged door deflty obscuring the tunnel entrance and the hidden danger within. This door is made out soil and other plant material surrounding the hole, in nearly perfect camouflage. The nocturnal predator hides behind their cork door, holding onto it from the back side, and wait for the vibration of approaching prey. When the unfortunate victim gets too close, the spider jumps out with lightning speed and captures its prey – dragging the body into the depths.
There are many creatures, including large spiders, in roleplaying settings that can exploit this style of trap quite well. For ease, the goblin will continue to be the primary example. Goblins are notorious for setting tricks and traps, but many of them aren’t dynamic, but reactive. The benefit of making a dynamic trap is gaining an avenue for surprise and escape. Characters who are surprised can’t act (at least not very well), but they can take damage and lots of it if the goblins continually practice guerilla tactics. Having goblins actively springing traps then fading back into their tunnels can be frightening – especially if they begin to carve away the hit points of the party’s heavy hitters. A cowardly goblin gains great courage and use when they can strike at an enemy with little fear of reprisal. This will also ramp up the paranoia of the adventurers as they begin to question the placement and purpose of secret doors. A wonderfully hidden door can hide far more than piles of treasure.
Probably the greatest example of real world burrowers can be found in one of the darkest episodes of American history: The Vietnam War and the Viet Cong (VC). The Củ Chi tunnels found in the district of the same name are a vast underground network that housed untold thousands of individuals and have still never been completely mapped. These tunnels were ingenious and could hold entire villages of people. Many had sections for a hospital and several were known to have areas to entertain. But life in the tunnels wasn’t easy. The caverns were cramped, with stale – even poisonous – air and poor water sources. Cave-ins from bombings were not rare and the system was often infested with rats, spiders, scorpions, ants, malaria, and water infected with intestinal parasites. However, to continue with the topic of this article, they were very heavily trapped. At one point in the war, the US trained special soldiers that would come to be known as “tunnel rats.” These soldiers, if they could even talk about their experience afterward, reported experiences only nightmares are made of. The VC were excellent trap makers. Within the tunnels, they buried grenades with half-pulled pins rigged with trip wires. They made false tunnels that would collapse, or fill with water. Floors would drop out onto spinning cylinders filled with feces-smeared spikes. Cans filled with poisonous snakes were precariously set into ceilings only to tumble on the unwary. Some of these traps were also hidden on the jungle floor: swinging, spiked balls with wicked barbs have been discovered scattered throughout the trees on trip wires, as well as spiked wooden frames that would drop into the doorways of huts.
On a quick aside: these are all absolutely grisly traps that this author can’t even begin to fathom facing in real life. All of the men who experienced these horrors in real life have the respect of Skinner Games® for the sacrifice they, and many of their friends, made during the Vietnam Conflict. Thank you so much for your service.
From a gaming perspective, the Củ Chi tunnels are the perfect example of a frightening burrowed dungeon. It’s cramped and dark. There’s little room to swing weapons or carry a flaming torch. Well-hidden traps exist everywhere, absolutely everywhere. Poisonous air fills the tunnels. Some tunnels dead end and have the way out collapse, burying the victim alive. That doesn’t even begin to cover the dangerous denizens inside with their tricks and abilities. Combine any number of the traps above with the type of tactics used by the examined burrowers and you have one scary dungeon for any level.
And now, after having done extensive research into torture devices and spiders (while suffering from arachnophobia), the search for sound sleep begins.
Have any other ideas for burrowing monsters, or suggestions for future pieces? Leave them in the comments below!