Apr 08

Table Tools: Two Story Overlays for Traps


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmMy long article for this week is another reprint of one I wrote for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter. This weekly email is required reading for GMs, combining some great articles with frequent tips from readers. Subscribers share their experiences, allowing you to learn from the collective experience of so many GMs world-wide.


This text appeared in RPT issue 649, under the title “Story Overlays: Two encounters to add More Plot to your Traps”.



Story Overlays: Two encounters to add More Plot to your Traps

All too often, a trap encounter is little more than a speed bump: the Heroes pause for a moment, make a few skill rolls, and then move onto the next room. While a trap may be a spotlight moment for the rogue or artificer, there is a way to engage the whole group with the trap.


Turn a trap encounter into a dynamic story location by adding a story overlay. Both of these story layers combine with an existing trap, adding roleplaying or puzzle elements into the encounter.


The Overlay

An overlay enhances an existing trap. Please ensure the trap location is large enough to accommodate the overlay. The description of a story overlay is divided into four main sections:

  • Description: an outline of what the Heroes see when they enter the trap location. Add these narrative details to the original location description.
  • Dilemma: a summary of the problem facing the Heroes.
  • Development: suggestions for how the encounter may progress, depending upon the Heroes solution to the dilemma.
  • Details: ways to tweak the overlay to fit closer to your wider story.



Here are two sample overlays for you to use in your game tonight.


Adventuring Merchant

This overlay provides a roleplaying opportunity in the trap room. It could evolve into combat, but negotiation is the most profitable option, as that provides additional clues about the trap and what lies beyond.

  • Description: As you enter the room, a door on the other side opens and a mixed group of figures walk in. Several of them are warriors, and from the look of their equipment, they appear to be adventurers.
  • Dilemma: The Heroes want to disarm the trap and travel deeper into the complex of rooms. The new group know how to bypass the trap and wish to leave. So each side wants to exit the way the other group entered. Will the Heroes negotiate, fight, or retreat and spy on the new group?
  • Development: The new arrivals are a merchant and his retinue of bodyguards, roughly equal in strength and number to the Heroes. The merchant has been trading with the most powerful figure deeper in the complex. He is not an ally, it is just business.
    • Consequently, the merchant does not want a fight, but his bodyguard will leap to his defence if attacked. The merchant knows how to negate the trap, and is prepared to sell that knowledge, or even information about what lies beyond the trap. It all depends upon what the Heroes have to trade in return.
    • If the Heroes try to intimidate the merchant, then he will simply retreat back to his customer and warn him of the Heroes. The merchant has faith in his bodyguard, and believes himself to be in a position of power. Thus, he is not about to be intimidated by the Heroes. He expects gold and valuables in exchange for his information.
    • Another possibility is for the Heroes to retreat, then spy on the group as they traverse the trap. This choice removes the roleplaying element from the encounter, but still provides clues for dealing with the trap.
    • Should the situation erupt into combat, then the bodyguard will use the features of the trap to aid them. They are experienced adventures, hired by the merchant, so will use similar tricks to ones the Players favour.
  • Details: The bodyguards are mostly humans, but may include representatives of the species living beyond the trap. These are amoral adventurers loyal to the merchant. Make the merchant driven by greed, but not outright evil.


Cat’s Cradle

This overlay provides a heightened puzzle for the players. The trap location is transformed by a complex network of chains into a physical puzzle with no easy solution.

  • Description: The room before you resembles a spider’s web made from chains which weave from floor to ceiling for the whole length of the room. Each stretch of the chain has several hand bells affixed to it. Suspended on this network of chain are several small barrels, located up near the ceiling of this chamber. Small, brown particles float in the air, and the whole rooms smells foul.
  • Dilemma: The essence of this room is a choice between equally poor options. If the Heroes rush through the room, then they will set the bells ringing and alert whoever is beyond the trap. If they move slowly through the room, avoiding setting off the bells, then they are vulnerable to the effects of the trap, by staying longer in the blast area. They could choose to remove the chains, but this only dumps the choking dust in the barrels into the room, and creates a whole new set of problems. Which of these bad choices will the Players pick?
  • Development:- As described in the Dilemma section, there are several components to this puzzle. The sturdy chains are made of metal, but not exceptionally strong. It is possible to cut these chains, but as they are a single network of chain, they are all linked together. Cut one chain, and all the bells and barrels will fall: unless the Players are clever.
    • The bells suspended on the chains are also normal, but will create a lot of noise if rung. Their noise would be heard through the entire complex.
      Finally, there are the barrels of choking dust. These are the source of the brown particles floating in the room, and the foul smell. If the barrels are disturbed, then small clouds of dust will fall to the floor. If the barrels are dropped, then the whole room is filled with a thick cloud of choking dust.
    • These barrels might make useful weapons for resourceful Players, but the dust is very motion sensitive, making the barrels challenging to transport. The dust is an alchemical compound, which produces severe choking and coughing if breathed. Small amounts of dust have a lesser effect, so scale the results accordingly.
  • Details: Both the bells and the dust could be magical, if this fits the location. Likewise, the dust may be from another plane, or corpse dust, depending upon the theme to the location.


Story overlay QuoteConclusion

A plot overlay is a highly flexible tool, allowing you to add all sorts of features to a trap location. Remember, this is the same trap as before, only with added story.


How would you use a story overlay? What are your favourite ways to add story to a trap encounter? Do you even play with traps? Would you like to see more examples? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:



3 pings

  1. […] Something for the Weekend last week: Table Tools: Two Story Overlays for Traps […]

  2. […] Table Tools: Two Story Overlays for Traps […]

  3. […] Table Tools: Two Story Overlays for Traps […]

Leave a Reply