While I wouldn’t go so far as to call traps an underutilized threat in Pathfinder, they’re certainly a secondary one. A devious trap can be debilitating, or even deadly, it’s true…but only if the party fails their Perception checks to notice it in the first place. After that it’s just a matter of avoiding it, smashing it, or disabling it. And even if the trap does get you it’s one roll – either an attack roll for it, or a save for its victim – and it’s over. You can see why monsters eclipse traps in every regard.
The best traps, in my opinion, are what I like to call “dilemma traps.” These place a character (or ideally, more than one character) in a James Bond or Indiana Jones-style situation where they’re in immediate peril, but if they think fast they can extricate themselves before they’d be killed. Think of The Pit and the Pendulum and you’ve got a good idea of what I mean. It’s that sort of trap that 4th Dimension Games brings to the table with the second in their series of Skill Encounters sourcebooks, Skill Encounters: Deadly Challenges – Traps.
Weighing in at twenty-four pages, this sequel book makes a few technical changes from the original. I’m quite happy that there are bookmarks this time around, letting you zip from section to section. Unfortunately, I noticed several spelling and grammar errors throughout the book – none of them glaring, certainly, but things like the occasional sentence that had no ending punctuation, or a misspelled word (“burried”).
Regarding the book’s visual presentation, the background has been lightened somewhat, now being more of an off-white than yellowish. The light grey whorls in the page backgrounds are now also lighter. There are some nice pieces of full color art throughout the book, but there’s no credit that I saw for who drew them, which is a shame. Sidebars use their own background which appears to be set on tan parchment.
Beyond concerns of how the book presents its material, let’s look at the material that it presents.
The book’s introduction talks about what a skill encounter is, how to run one for your players, and how to read the mechanics for the skill encounters presented in this book. A skill encounter is, simply put, a series of skill checks wherein you need so many successes (usually before a certain number of failures) to achieve your goal. That may sound fairly mundane on the surface, but there’s actually a lot more to it. A goal may have multiple types of checks that can be made, for instance, and there’s always secondary checks that help with achieving successes and reversing failures. Certain checks have lower or higher DCs than others. Spells have various effects on the skill encounter. Really, there’s a lot of ways for every member of an adventuring party to get involved in a skill encounter.
A sidebar here noted that this section of the book was reprinted in each copy of the Skill Encounters series, since it was boilerplate information on them. I was rather tickled by this, since the section on how to run skill encounters was new to this book. This was basically presenting information on how to present them to the group in such a manner as to be engaging and draw the PCs in. It may sound obvious, but having a guideline for determining how the PCs should try to discover what skills to use (instead of the GM just flat-out telling them it’s a skill encounter, and they can use skills A, B, or C) is good advice to have. Much to my delight, a sidebar also denotes how to calculate the Challenge Rating (and thus the experience points) of a skill encounter.
The book’s title makes it clear what the theme of these skill encounters is (and if it didn’t, my opening paragraphs certainly should have). Not just tasks that require some effort to be accomplished, this book presents trapped situations that the party has to find a way out of. Interestingly, most of these don’t deal direct damage with any sort of regularity, but rather deal with avoiding some sort of near-instant kill situation, such as falling through a vacuum-portal to some other dimension.
There are five specific deadly traps presented here, most of which call up archetypal bad situations for characters to be in. My personal favorite, the collapsing dungeon, is the classic “we beat the end boss! It’s party t-, wait…what’s that rumbling?” Others have your PCs in a slowly flooding room, a chamber filling with poison gas, and more. Thanks to the scalable DCs, it’s possible to use these at any level, whether you’re running things for a neophyte party or a group of seasoned adventurers.
It’s worth noting that, while the book makes only an abbreviated mention of mixing these traps up with other threats, doing so easily adds to the tension of what’s already here. Struggling to get out of a room filling with poison gas is bad…struggling to get out of a room filled with poison gas and a pack of wights is much worse. Are you trying to avoid being pulled into the portal to the Abyss? What do you do when your enemy is right next to you, also trying to save himself…do you ignore him and concentrate on getting to safety, or do you try to knock him in? These scenarios all have great potential even beyond what’s written here; inspiration at it’s finest.
If you’ve read my review of the previous Skill Encounters book (Non-combat Challenges) then you may have noticed that all of my issues with that book have been fixed in this one (save, of course, for being left wanting more). In fact, save for the few spelling and grammar problems, this is well-nigh a perfect book. It has near-universal applicability (unless your group doesn’t ever head into dungeons or similar dangerous locales), there’s something for pretty much everybody to do, the scenarios are easily customized, and it walks you through everything from presentation to XP. Don’t let your game’s traps fall into the same old trap of being easily-detected one-attack threats; let Skill Encounters: Deadly Challenges – Traps put your PCs into some harrowing situations they’ll never forget.