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I'm running Dragon of Icespire Peak, and my players have encountered the Dragon Barrow.

This question relates to the mechanics of a specific part of the quest, so I've liberally used spoiler blocks to avoid spoiling this for any players of the campaign who might find this question.

If you're playing DoIP in any group (not just my players), don't read this question or the answers.

Section D5 is described as (emphasis mine):

This tunnel is only 2 feet wide. At the halfway point, a 5-foot-long pressure plate is hidden under a 2-inch-thick layer of earth. A character prodding ahead with a pole or similar tool can detect the plate with a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check. The first character to step on the plate causes the walls of the tunnel to collapse inward, burying all creatures in the tunnel. A buried creature is blinded and restrained, has total cover against attacks, and begins to suffocate when it runs out of breath (see "Suffocation" in the rulebook). Only a creature that is not trapped in the tunnel can clear away the collapse, using an action to open up the 5-foot-deep section of tunnel closest to it. A creature in that space is no longer buried.

Given that

the tunnel is 50', this means that the trap is 25' down the tunnel. The trap buries all creatures in the tunnel, so given it seems normal to assume that the PCs follow fairly close behind each other, this would mean all the PCs are caught, unless they explicitly say only one or two characters go down the tunnel and the rest stay in the room.

Because

Only a creature that is not trapped in the tunnel can clear away the collapse, therefore if the party are all in the tunnel (which seems likely), there will be a TPK because no-one is left to dig them out

Am I missing something, or is this likely to lead to a TPK, with no particular warning for the players?

Obviously as DM I can overrule and say that

the PCs left an unusually large gap between each other and so only some of the PCs are in the tunnel if/when it collapses
or say the last player jumps out of the tunnel (I could ask for a DEX save, but at that point they can't afford to fail it, so I'd probably rule they get free even on a 1, and just take damage)

but nothing in the module as written suggests this. I suspect I'm missing something?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A comment about your last point, as a DM I always make sure I constantly ask the players what there positioning is, how far they are from each other etc, you should never make assumptions in order to “protect or kill” the party, that removes player agency and can lead to players wondering what the point is. It is the same reason I never fudge dice rolls, that way my players know they won and lost every fight fairly and not because I made it happen a certain way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Richard C
    Jan 24 at 11:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, whilst I’ve made a habit of checking their marching order, I’ve not been checking the gap between them, so asking that now will clue them in. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 24 at 12:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I should add - I’m not opposed to a TPK, but I’d want them to go down fighting, not to a badly designed trap which (as written) there’s no particular reason to expect, and no way to know that this time they have to use their 10’ pole to find. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 24 at 12:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ The fact that the tunnel is specified to be only 2 feet wide would be kind of suspicious to me as a player, and probably would lead me to send only one character through at a time. It's kind of like presenting the party with a fraying and dilapidated rope bridge, or a mountain ledge that is only a foot wide and covered in ice. Maybe strongly emphasize the claustrophobic and sketchy aspect of the tunnel when describing it to the players? \$\endgroup\$
    – tbrookside
    Jan 24 at 13:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @tbrookside good point, thanks. That’s particularly helpful as I’ve left it too late to signal more generally the risk of traps. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 24 at 15:02
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Having run the adventure through twice now for starting groups of players I agree this trap can cause the potential of a TPK, but this is not a bad thing and can be mitigated for by foreshadowing it prior to them reaching it. One interesting side point is that the need to use a 10ft pole harks back to original DnD where perception, investigation and trap disarming where not stats in the game, instead all players had was a long pole to poke things with from a distance.

I have tweaked almost all of the encounters in DOISP to match my party (one of the games I ran was for 8 players which requires everything to be scaled up a bit) but also because I felt it was lacking. On first read through of the adventure this particular trap jumped out at me as being highly dangerous for the reasons you state, I initially considered adjusting it to ensure only a couple of characters where buried but I instead decided to think of it as a big bad enemy which a party need to learn how to deal with.

This started in the dwarven excavation I added pressure plate traps, the dwarves having already found and marked one. This taught my players to always search and check for traps. These traps where largely harmless but 2 emitted a cloud that covered a large area, this helped my new players start to consider who is positioned where in a space. As an aside I also made the gem at the end worth 500gp and the statue explode so as to give somthing worth getting. I also made the trap a Indiana Jones style affair.

In Gnomegarden I added a couple more trap situations again designed to teach the players to start thinking more carefully.

Throughout other encounters as it was appropriate (the manticore one for instance it isn’t) I added in traps, secret doors etc until the party got used to searching as standard, I also ensured they didn’t find something every time.

Finally the trap itself. I left it as was but in addition to the dc10 check with a pole I added a dc20 to detect somthing up with the ground if someone was looking for it. I figured this was realistic, if the ground underneath is slightly different then the mud above it will be. One of the party made this check and then spent about an hour real time working out and discussing how they would bypass it or avoid it. Because of the thickness of the dirt I decided a simple disarm roll would not be possible.

So a combination of using the adventure as a teaching experience as to how to play and what to think about in DnD and a slight tweak to the adventure to allow for non pole poking players to identify something is off with the ground. If you have engendered suitable caution in the players already they shouldn’t all just wander into the tunnel as a whole group. In fact by the time we reached here both parties had started learning the art of sending one or 2 players ahead to scout out everything and check for traps. Brilliantly they didn’t just insist the rogue do this, the bard and fighter both insisted at times because that was their personality resulting in some hilarious moments.

Ultimately though sometimes players need to understand that the world is dangerous and characters die. If you are playing with a brand new group of players consider, if this does result in a TPK, allowing them to reset to the start of the tunnel again and have another go. But make clear that this is not something you will do every time.

There is a great overview of the encounters in DOISP at https://slyflourish.com/running_icespire_peak.html

For this trap he suggests allowing players the chance to dig themselves out if the whole party is trapped. Or skipping the trap altogether. Alternatively you could have the cave in be a bit smaller and ensure at least 1 party member is on the outskirts of it. Maybe describe it is as trapping a leg or partially burying them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately I didn’t read all the quests carefully looking for this kind of stuff before starting - when I skim read the campaign I didn’t spot how dangerous this was. I have made a fair few changes to help the plot hold together, but it’s now too late to foreshadow sudden TPK traps - at the end of last session they were literally standing next to the tunnel! I will certainly be more thorough in my reading before the next off-the-shelf module I use - I naively assumed an official module would not have issues like this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 24 at 12:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ DOISP is a great introductory adventure but like all the published ones it can lack a bit of nuance and relies on the DM to add in information slyflourish.com/running_icespire_peak.html that is a great site with some really good tips. If they are stood there I would say making the trap detectable with a suitably high DC is fair, consider your players stats and what might be achievable. Alternatively the reset after death is an acceptable option as a one off, just ensure your players are clear if it happens that it is a one off. \$\endgroup\$
    – Richard C
    Jan 24 at 12:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Whilst I’ve enjoyed it, and it’s got a lot of potential, I feel it’s not the best for a new DM; LMoP (which I’m also running) feels better in terms of well balanced encounters for low-level characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 24 at 12:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I enjoy that as well and have combined the 2 sucesfully it is a little more railroaded but for an inexperienced DM fills a lot of gaps. DOISP I have had to write a lot of filler either for the travel between encounters, or amending encounters to make them a bit more unique and fun. I also populated the whole town with NPCs and shops to allow for more roleplaying. Feel free to PM me if you want to talk through anything. I think it is a good skeleton for a DM who wants to try a more sandbox campaign. \$\endgroup\$
    – Richard C
    Jan 24 at 12:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes helpful - DOISP is a good start for a sandbox. I’ve likewise added travel encounters and tried to link the encounters more. Sly Flourish’s notes are helpful 👍 I’d neglected to check them for this encounter. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 24 at 15:01
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Knowledge Checks May Prevent TPK

I just want to expand on Revenant Bacon's answer a little to remind that situations like this are an excellent spot to introduce skill checks that facilitate the players gaining a better understanding of what their characters would know as well as ensuring that they as players and you as the DM have the same expectations.

And several applicable skills in 5e can be used to hint things out:

  • History (via a Dwarven party members' Stonecunning feature)
  • Investigation (either active or passive depending on how the players interact with the sides of the wall)
  • Survival (especially if a character has made themselves proficient)

So while the trap, as written, is a death trap with high likelihood of leading to TPK it doesn't mean that there shouldn't be multiple reasonable methods presented to the players to mitigate the risk.

It is kind of disappointing that the module doesn't seem to include that kind of guidance. Especially given how anti-climatic that kind of TPK would be.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of using Stonecunning – the PCs have flavour features like this which are often overlooked \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 21 at 21:28
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Some encounters are just deadly if not approached in the proper manner or with the proper precautions.

This is something players learn to account for with playing experience, and the only way to get that experience is to fall victim to such encounters. This seems to be one of those times. If the players are all bunched up right next to each other, and there are 5 or fewer characters, then yes, this could simply be a complete party wipe. That's OK. TPK's happen sometimes; after all, if there's no risk of "losing", is it even a game? I personally have had more than one experience where standing too close together has caused my entire party to be hit by a trap that otherwise would have hit only half of us.

Eventually, we learned to keep a greater distance between ourselves when traversing a dungeon.

Eventually, we learned to send a scout out ahead to check for traps, enemies, and loot.

Maybe your players have already learned this lesson, and only send in one or two characters to scout out the passage and the room beyond, or go in with some space between themselves. Maybe they haven't learned this particular lesson, and go into a confined space while taking no precautions against springing a trap, or getting attacked while in such tight quarters. Maybe, they're about to learn this lesson.

If you feel that this lesson is too harsh, then as the DM, you're free to adjust the encounter's difficulty. You could have only a small portion of the tunnel collapse, trapping fewer characters. Or you could allow characters to dig themselves out with a successful Strength(Athletics) check. That's up to you, but as written, yes, this trap could easily end in a TPK.

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