Sadly, in most cases, D&D traps are usually more exciting than real world ones. No tombs ever had poison darts triggered by pressure plates or stairs that suddenly retract to slide unwary victims down to their doom.
However, that doesn’t mean we can’t get some ideas from devious traps from history. I’m going to run down 5 very real and very interesting examples you can take for your next game.
Cinnabar & The Red Queen of Palenque
In 1994, archaeologists in southern Mexico were conducting some restoration work on a Mayan temple complex. One of the crew members discovered a small crack forming on a staircase. Peering through the opening, they discovered a previously undiscovered sealed door. After carefully clearing accumulated debris from the following passage, they discovered a completely intact tomb likely dating from 1300 to 1400 years earlier. Once inside the main burial chamber, they found the remains of an ancient noblewoman and her possessions all covered in a vibrant crimson pigment. This earned her the nickname The Red Queen of Palenque.
This scenario on it’s own would be a tidy little set up to a first level adventure. But rather than spiked pits or falling rock traps, the queen was protected by the powder that decorated her remains. Upon analysis, it was revealed to the extremely toxic substance cinnabar.
For many people cinnabar is crayon in the deluxe package or an island in the Pokémon games. However, cinnabar goes by another name: powdered mercury ore. Mercury was well-known, even at the time of the Red Queen’s burial, to cause madness and death. Cinnabar was widely used by the Mayans in artwork, so it’s unclear if this was intended to be a decadent display of wealth, a trap to doom greedy grave robbers, or both. For our purposes though, let’s just say it’s a trap.
A powder that when excessively handled causes player characters to slowly go mad and eventually die might be excessive for a single trap (or maybe it’s not for you, I don’t know how you run your games), so I’ve got a slightly different take to use a countermeasure like this. The players discover a room filled with a mysterious pigment that doesn’t seem to do any obvious damage, but seems to just be a powerful respiratory irritant that causes them some discomfort. The rest of the dungeon is filled with vicious, blind monsters attracted to the parties newly acquired respiratory trouble. They spend the rest of the adventure hiding behind sarcophaguses rolling to stifle coughs and sneezes and avoid detection.
Back in the 1700s, graveyards were lucrative hunting grounds for crooks. Not only was there the jewelry and gold fillings of the wealthy to be plunderedl, the bodies themselves were extremely valuable to medical universities, as there were few legal avenues to acquire cadavers to study. In fact, the latter practice was so common that the grave robbers earned the moniker of “resurrection men.”
The issue was serious enough that grieving families and cemetery caretakers were forced to enact deadly measures. They began to set up flintlock firearms around the graves they intended to protect. A series of tripwires would trigger the weapon. This trap was especially effective at night, when robbers were far more likely to be active under the cover of darkness. To help identify how to avoid cemetery guns, thieves would sometimes hire women to pose as grief stricken widows during the day to scope out where traps may be hidden. In response to this tactic, some cemetery keepers would place their guns just before sundown to keep their location hidden. Eventually, cocked and loaded guns were placed directly in caskets primed to fire at whoever was unfortunate enough to open them.
If your game takes place in a pre-gunpowder setting, crossbows could easily take the place of guns. Perhaps your crew needs to get into a catacomb complex hidden in a seemingly normal graveyard (for altruistic reasons, of course). The crazed, misanthropic keeper refuses to let anyone poke around and has filled the cemetery with these traps.
Perhaps you could also pair a similar trap with the Red Queen coughing trap. In a dungeon filled with monsters attracted to sound, the party opens an ancient coffin to have a primitive bomb go off dealing damage and alerting enemies to their location.
Picture Frame Trap
During World War II, fleeing German soldiers often left behind explosive traps targeting Allied forces. In an attempt to deal maximum damage to British command structure, they wanted to specifically attempt to maim and kill officers. One particular and devious incarnation was the picture frame trap. Assuming that officers would be more likely to be perfectionists or detail oriented, they would place a grenade behind an askew painting. It would be rigged in such a way that when straightened it would pull the pin and detonate. It’s unclear if this method caught more fussy officers than grunts, but it was certainly the intention.
This wouldn’t be out of place in an orc hideout after the players had driven them out. However, let’s not limit ourselves to just explosives. Perhaps a portrait in an evil wizard’s laboratory is enchanted so that whenever its position is fixed, a set of books on a nearby shelf animate and attack. This could also be a fun way to conceal an entrance. Instead of the frame being a trap, it could trigger a secret passageway.
The Oak Island Money Pit has certainly gained a measure of popularity in recent years. It got a show on the History channel that ran for 105 episodes. If you haven’t heard of it, the Money Pit is located on Oak Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. It is a manmade shaft dug hundreds of feet into the ground by unknown builders from an unknown date. It’s said to have several layers of thick oak floors culminating in a sealed cement chamber and ending in a final iron platform. Rumors circulated from at least the 18th century about mysterious treasures housed within. Nobody is sure exactly what’s supposed to be down there. Theories range from William Shakespere’s original manuscripts, to lost Templar gold, and even potentially the Holy Grail. The reason nobody can say for sure is allegedly because a group known as the Onslow Company accidentally flooded it during an excavation. The story goes that once they penetrated 60 feet below, they triggered a trap that poured water into the structure making the lower levels inaccessible. Countless expeditions have been mounted since earning this site the name “Money Pit” due to the untold millions of dollars wasted on failed extraction attempts.
For our purposes though, it basically ends your adventure cause the path to become impassable due to debris and seawater. But incorporating an Oak Island like encounter is really doable. While descending down the inverted tower, a player could cause it to fill with water causing the party to have to swim the rest of the way down searching for pockets of air as they go. Then, as they advance, further traps could introduce long dormant skeletal piranhas. Maybe some jets of ink clouding their vision? Once the Macguffin is recovered at the bottom, this harrowing dive could culminate in a desperate race back to the surface before they run out of air.
Winchester Mystery House
And finally we have another source of traps that should be fairly well known: The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. In 1884 a recently widowed rifle-heiress Sarah Winchester moved out to an unfinished farmhouse in the sparsely populated Santa Clara Valley. She had crews continually working on additions until her death in 1922, which resulted in a sprawling mansion of 160 rooms. The popular mythology is that she built the enormous house to confuse spirits seeking vengeance after being slain by the guns bearing her family name. It contains numerous architectural oddities like stairs that go nowhere, windows that face inward into interior rooms, and doors that open to two story drops.
Granted, most of these traps seem to be designed with ghosts in mind and your game probably doesn’t feature a party of ghosts… Although, as a brief aside, that sounds like that could be a pretty cool one shot. You play as a spirit trapped in a confusing labyrinthian manor and you’re trying to escape.
Anyway, the application of these types of engineering quirks seem well suited to confound adventurers as they attempt to traverse a haunted mansion. Your players might be attempting to flee vengeful spectres themselves. While a corporeal creature will fumble with false doors and stairs that lead to dead ends, the ghosts could effortlessly slip through the walls.
Above all though, the easiest thing to take from the Mystery House is the door that opens to a steep fall. You could easily imagine a beefy fighter zealously offering to kick down a locked door only to end up falling twenty feet into an open moat on the outside of a castle.