I love surprising players. Even if your players are in a skeleton-lined tunnel made by kobolds that leads to the tomb of Loki, you can still surprise them with a good trap or encounter.
I’m not including stats for these traps and encounters. They are ideas you can use in basically any system and any level, so shape them according to your group.
1: Titanic Cave Mimic
I love mimics, the monsters disguised as treasure chests that love to surprise and eat unsuspecting or greedy adventurers. The problem is most people interested in playing a fantasy RPG probably know what a mimic is, and thus they almost never get to surprise anyone.
With this encounter, the old, musty, cobweb-covered treasure chest isn’t the monster itself. It’s the bait.
Place the tempting treasure chest in a corner alcove in a cave. Stalactites and stalagmites litter the cave. An astute player may catch that there are more in front of the chest than elsewhere in the cave.
When a player reaches the treasure chest or hits it with a melee attack, the titanic cave mimic comes to life.
The treasure chest is a small piece of the inside of the titanic cave mimic’s mouth. The stalagmites and stalactites around the chest are its teeth. The titanic cave mimic closes around the closest player, and steps out from the wall, revealing its massive, once-camouflaged, stoney body.
The mimic chews its victim while it attacks the other players.
For stats, take the base stats for a mimic in whatever system you are using, scale up its size to where it can fit a person in its mouth (applying bonuses and penalties for a creature of that size), give it extra armor from its hard, stoney flesh, and give it bonuses (feats, edges, perks, whatever your system uses) for surprising its enemies. The higher level your players are, the more vicious attributes you can give it.
2: Jumping Into Danger
Walking through a narrow corridor, the floor beneath the players wavers and crumbles. This is a false trap to get the player to jump into the real trap so they don’t have time to spot it. As the ground starts to collapse, the players on the affected area have to jump out of the way. If they fail to avoid the crumbling floor, the pit they fall into should not be deep enough to cause any damage.
Needing to react to the collapsing floor, they will most likely leap forward to avoid the fall. The space just after the hole is the real trap.
Once they avoid the pit and land on the area in front it, a trap that actually causes damage springs. You can make it a pressure plate that drops spikes from the ceiling or shoot darts from secret compartments in the walls (add poison for additional cruelty). You could have a trap door drop rattlesnakes or weasels on the player. You could have a hidden magical rune on the floor that explodes when touched. You could have fire erupt from the floor. The choice is yours.
Make the floor trap slightly easier to find. Then if they find the first trap, they might not expect the one that immediately follows it.
The point of this trap is to show that the trap maker outsmarted the players, doing serious damage to them is a bonus. Use this in conjunction with other surprises to make the players nervous about what new threats await.
3: A Friendly Brawl at a Busy Tavern
The party winds up at a bustling tavern filled with people. The traveling minstrels on stage are loud, the ale is flowing, and half-drunken chatter fills the air. A tough-looking person gets chummy with the strongest looking player in the party. The stranger starts asking questions, buys a round for the group, and eventually turns the topic to how well that player can fight.
This leads the stranger challenging the player to a friendly brawl with a modest bet on who will win. The rules are simple:
– Fists only (no weapons). No one wants to inflict real, permanent damage.
– No aid from others (magical or otherwise).
– Stop when the other person says stop or gets knocked out.
The patrons are familiar with brawls here, and they’ll watch out for people who try to throw the fight through magic or other means. Everyone makes a circle in the center of the bar for the two to fight.
The catch is that the band of minstrels are actually a group of bards, using their bardic magic to buff the person who challenged the player.
Once the fight starts, the bards subtly change their tune and start using their magic to buff the stranger. Because the bardic magic occurs through the already playing music and it didn’t start until the fight started, the eyeing crowds don’t see anyone cast a spell and can’t detect the magic. Thus, the stranger has a distinct advantage over the player.
If the player starts to win, the bards could use their bardic magic to debuff the player, but that gives the player the chance to realize something is amiss.
This scenario can be used to humble a player, introduce a nefarious, returning NPC, or use the wager of the fight to get something important away from the players (information, a key item, etc). Or you can have them catch the stranger and the bard and get something from them.
I love RPGs and sharing my ideas with others. Share what your thoughts in the comments.