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In a campaign I'm running, the players have recently had some magic items stolen from them by a wizard and his goons. The party tracked down the wizard to his lair in a system of caves. The wizard has 24 hours of notice that the party is coming for him - how can he best protect his lair in those 24 hours knowing the specific threat and generally beforehand being a diligent evil wizard knowing that at some point someone might come looking for him?

Assumptions:

  • The wizard can cast up-to 5th level spells and acquiring material spell components isn't an issue for him. He has access to any spells required.
  • The wizard doesn't want to flee from his lair if it can be helped, and he can't relocate out of it
  • There is an ample supply of Kobold minions for the wizard to make use of
  • Any spells and/or magic items he uses are from WOTC 5e sourcebooks
  • This wizard is an NPC and is not required to abide by the rules for player characters. I would prefer for the wizard to utilise the same or similar tools that are available to PCs, simply because that is my preference over allowing NPCs to do things which PCs cannot.
  • The wizard has been residing in his lair for an arbitrary amount of time prior to the 24 hours notice
  • The wizard wants to protect his lair most of all, so if that means deadly traps and defences then so be it, but (being a wizard) he also loves to show everyone how clever he is, so allowing intruders to make it a little ways into his lair and seeing all of his traps in action is something that he would like too.

I have been using the mage statblock for the wizard so far, but I'm very happy to change out any spells for this particular wizard.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The goal is "to protect the lair", but what exactly the lair is, what part of it needs protection and from what exactly? I mean, the system of caves itself presumably doesn't need protection. So what does? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 19 at 11:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think a lot of this will depend upon the party being opposed. Can you provide some details on the party? \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Apr 19 at 17:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ For everyone who has answered and is considering answering: Please remember that all answers here need to be supported - even subjective. You can read about what you can do in this meta. If you can't support your answer, please don't submit one. If you have submitted and you can't support, please consider removing it. We aren't an idea generation site and answers shouldn't like that and should be supported by your experience. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 20 at 12:25
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Illusions and traps FTW

I recently ran a dungeon where the characters were up against a mad illusionist who had inhabited a mine and was living off of whatever adventurers dropped when they investigated the mine and died. It came off as pretty successful as it did the following:

  • Players reported they had a fun time!
  • I was able to deliver some new twists on old tropes like a trapped dungeon.
  • Due to how I delivered the dungeon (roll20.net) I was able to use the environment to give the players a sense of what their characters were experiencing with illusions confusing their senses (see the note on the Seeming spell below).

Your mage might not be mad, but how sane can they be if they're trusting those little back-stabbing Kobold jerks to not betray them?

Following the guidelines set up for PCs

Hopefully your Kobolds can act somewhat independently. They've got 24 hours to enact a setup worthy of Tucker's Kobolds. To make sure your mage gets to take the credit for their work they're going to add as many illusions as they can to give players an even harder time of finding, disarming, and surviving the various traps that will be left behind.

Seeming (5th level) lasts for 8 hours and doesn't require concentration.

This spell allows you to change the appearance of any number of creatures that you can see within range. You give each target you choose a new, illusory appearance.

Since it doesn't change the toughness of your Kobolds you'll want to make them look like something the adventurers will avoid at all costs, like Brown Mold, Rust Monsters, and anything else that's a pain to defeat. Even better if those Kobolds are guarding the easy path you take back and forth in your dungeon, prompting players to take the trapped paths that look safer.

Alternately, if your Kobolds can wrangle up some monsters that are actually deadly to the players, you can make them seem like something easily defeatable (within the size restrictions set up by the spell).

In the dungeon I ran my illusionist had struck a bargain with Shadow Demons, not Kobolds, so this may be a little different for you, but when I ran this I had my illusionist cast this twice. The first time was right before the characters walked down steps to the next dungeon, making each character look like a different monster. This was initially confusing, but since it didn't have any immediate harmful effects they let it slide. The next casting was on a bunch of Shadow Demons on the next level, making them look identical to the characters. Seeing as we were using roll20 and since the Shadow Demons have incorporeal movement (allowing them to pass through enemy spaces) the players had a hard time telling friend from foe, which was the point. After a few times when they targeted each other (and fully enjoyed the sensation of themselves not knowing who was who, as opposed to having to separate character knowledge from player knowledge concerning the illusions), the players realized they had to really focus and keep track of which monsters were the enemy.

Hallucinatory Terrain (4th level) lasts for 24 hours and makes

...natural terrain in a 150-foot cube in range look, sound, and smell like some other sort of natural terrain.

This might be open to interpretation, but I'd say the natural terrain of a sinkhole-filled cavern could be made to look like the the natural terrain of a cave with a well-worn, completely safe floor.

In my dungeon the mad illusionist had disguised some drop-offs as being solid and some solid floors as drop-offs in order to try to lure the characters (who lack Feather Fall) to their doom. Luckily for my players (who often seem to do things the hard way) they decided to climb along a wall to avoid a hole in the ground (which in reality was solid ground) and they accidentally avoided the seemingly-solid hole, so I can't say for sure what would have happened if they'd gone the wrong way. However, in the event that they did go over the trapped ground I was prepared to offer saving throws first to realize they were about to fall and second to allow players on solid earth to grab ahold of the falling player. This was to emphasize the untrustworthiness of the dungeon as opposed to actually killing anyone off.

Major Image (3rd level) is short at 10-minutes and requires concentration, but is probably helpful to hold in reserve as a final way of covering up your ultimate trap of doom once the adventurers have dispelled your other illusions and regained their confidence. Especially if you can tie them up for an hour after they cast True Sight.

In my dungeon this was necessary to obscure the best trap of all; a plate in the ground that dropped a boulder on the mine cart track they were following so that it rolled towards them in an homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The at least nominally-vigilant group was looking for traps instead of feeling ahead for one and was surprised to suddenly feel their foot descending and watch it disappear below the illusion.

Pushing the boundaries of what NPCs can do

Since you said you'd prefer your wizard to "utilise the same or similar tools" you might be open to a little house-ruling. If so, you might decide that the NPC knows a custom version of Major Image that becomes permanent after multiple castings. Major Image already allows the illusion to become permanent if you cast it with a 6th-level spell slot, so you might find this isn't too far of a reach for you. Permanent illusions can cover up all sorts of pressure plates, trip wires, and anything else that triggers your traps.

Finally, looking ahead to the future.

If your mage survives this encounter (even if the PCs rob them blind) they might level up by killing off all the other adventurers who will also visit the dungeon. If they can reach a high enough level to get access to 6th and 7th level spells then you have a few more options. You'll certainly be casting Major Image with a 6th level spell slot well before the adventurers arrive until they won't know what's real and what isn't.

You'll also want to look into Mirage Arcane (7th level) which lets you

...make terrain in an area up to 1 mile square look, sound, smell, and even feel like some other sort of terrain. (emphasis mine)

Now your players have even less reason to trust their senses. Even better, the next time the players think they've found the treasure hoard what they've really found is a large pile of stones that look like gold pieces.

I absolutely did this with my illusionist's treasure hoard (and hopefully my players don't know my stack exchange user name). Since all of their gold went into a bag of holding they haven't yet realized that it's not chock full of worthless rocks, but knowing my group I think it'll be a source of hilarity instead of angst. YMMV.

You might also invest in Simulacrum (7th level), because nothing says "don't come back to this dungeon" like the players thinking they've killed you off when in fact it was your double. This works best if your double can throw themselves into a pit right before they die to the players don't see the double turn into a pile of slush.

OTOH, I had my players see the simulacrum turn back to slush because I wanted them to know their new nemesis was still out there. Being a DM whose always having to make guesses at what random place they'll travel to next in the world, it's nice to have upped the chance that they'll return to a place I already have well-mapped for a bit of vengence.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've expanded on this to try and do a better job of citing the entirety of my personal experience in my answer. Feedback that can help me improve this answer is, of course, welcome. \$\endgroup\$ – mkdir Apr 20 at 21:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ You've got a great answer with phenomenal experience support. This is exactly what we're looking for! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 20 at 21:16
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Layer magic with mundane, add hazards and obstacles that aren't traps, and consider how thorough you want to be.

Some questions to ask yourself as you're designing this dungeon:

  • Do you want the PCs to actually get their stuff back? How quickly? (i.e., the same dungeon run or after the second/third try, vs. after a multi-session, cross-country hunt for the escaping wizard, leveling up along the way, vs. never is fine)

  • What are the wizard's priorities among The Stuff, The Lair, and His Life? in which order would he give those up if all of them are threatened? When would that happen?

  • How willing is this wizard to rely on reliable, but uncool, mundane traps?

and most importantly,

  • How mean are you willing to get?

If your table enjoys an adversarial playstyle already, or if you're willing to be very mean, you can do things like layer traps such that trap 1 pushes you into the trigger for trap 2, or the seemingly clear area to carefully edge around the sides of a pit trap is actually wallpapered with glyphs of warding, and cause an unfortunate domino-chain of traps activating. Scale down the individual danger of each trap, and you have dangerous slapstick; scale up the individual danger level of each trap, and you have something that could quickly escalate into one or more PC deaths and frustrate players.

If you go really mean, take a look at Leomund's secret chest or using stoneshape to create and seal off a cache in the stone wall to hide the items stolen from the party to make it very hard for the players to get them back. Secret chest does not fetch back the chest if the spell ends--it's lost forever--and 1 foot of stone will block detect magic, if not locate object.

If you don't want to throw the book at your party, don't bother with overlapping traps except for your most deadly layer, and consider allowing clever PCs to observe the kobolds and how they get around without being splattered everywhere. The PC's stuff, which by what you've told us is the chief reason they're braving this dungeon, will be more accessible, even if that still means 'in the wizard's private study with the wizard'.

Control the Terrain, and Don't Avoid the Mundane.

A smart wizard, who has set up a lair in a cave system and expects there to be intruders at some point, does not leave the cave system un-terraformed. Spells like wall of stone or stoneshape, shatter, or even kobolds with pickaxes can reform the tunnels of the cave to create chokepoints, potential pitfalls, areas where you can partially collapse the ceiling for reduced movement or a barricade, and misleading paths or dead ends. Control the cave system layout and you can create better trap points. If you're using magic to create specific difficult terrain like entangle or spike growth, be ready to break the rules, as most of the PC-facing spells take concentration and aren't on the wizard spell list anyway.

Pragmatic wizards also don't skimp on mundane traps when they have minions to set 'em up for them. Pit traps, crossbow tripwires, caltrop-throwers, baskets of poisonous spiders or snakes... save your spells for personal defense and let the cave and kobolds work for you. It's not magically flamboyant, no, but it is effective. You can add some magical flamboyance through judicious use of illusions to disguise more mundane traps, as mkdir has explained elsewhere on the page.

It should go without saying that this is not an area where having a successful long rest should be possible. Even 'safe' or 'peaceful' areas should be deceptively so, with delayed traps or kobolds waiting to ambush the party unless they're very clever. You can also have the kobolds try and steal equipment, or any other magic items your party has been using.

OK, But Spells Though.

Again, mkdir has covered illusions very well, and those traps will have good synergy with mundane traps or as redirects. There are some more magic-focused options, though.

  • Alarm lasts 8 hours and allows repeat casts. Timing on this one may be tricky if you want to use a lot of them and have a long rest in case of dramatic fight. It allows for kobold mob targeting, though it does also alert the PCs that they have been noticed if you use the audible alarm.

  • Arcane lock, if you have any doors. Knock, dispel magic, or normal brute force will still get you through, but basic lockpicks will not. Like glyph of warding below, you can also set a password to let someone through.

  • Mordenkainen's Private Sanctum will give you a teleport-proof, divination-proof inner area, which would be a sort of last-ditch defense if it comes to a fight with the intruders but would prevent an emergency exit via misty step, dimension door, or the like. Consider this if the wizard is keeping The Stuff with him, but not in an inaccessible location. Also lasts 24 hours with no concentration, so something you can pre-cast and then long rest.

  • Nystul's Magic Aura can help disguise some magical traps. This one's not permanent unless you DM fiat make it so.

  • glyph of warding will likely be your star for purely magical traps, especially if money is no object. They can explode or store a spell; where you want discouraging traps, load them with illusion or debuff spells, or lower-level damaging spells. Where you want deadly traps, upcast it and load it with more damaging spells--doing this takes 2 spell slots, for glyph and the spell it stores, so you're looking at 4th level or lower based on the NPC mage statblock. Glyphs last until triggered or dispelled, which means the wizard had as many days as he's had this lair to plaster glyphs everywhere.

Glyph of warding can even sort of be used as a difficulty dial if you want it to be: you can set a password so the kobold army can get past a glyph--which you can use as a way for canny PCs to reduce the overall danger level of the dungeon, if they can figure that out. If you want to specifically make this not an option, each casting of glyph of warding can have its own password, so you can have different passwords override different traps. Your Table May Vary.

Magic traps also have the innate weakness of generally being detectable by detect magic and dispellable by dispel magic, if your intruders have access to them. This still forces intruders to spend resources detecting and removing traps, though, which is still a minor win for the defending wizard.

Final Trap?

If you want to use this wizard's trap-setting tendency to add pseudo-lair actions to a climactic fight scene, he does have access to wall of force, which can no-sell a lot of the basic PC abilities and spells, as well as a massive trap he may be standing in the middle of. Failing that, a simple alarm will at least prevent him from being surprised.

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Others have some very good answers, but I was recently thinking about how to make a crafty escape. I was thinking it would be useful to have a large millstone in a science lab, powered by water (or magic). The obvious reason to have it would be to powder various ingredients as needed, and I would place various things around it to make that obvious. However, if the stone were large and happened to fit very snuggly in an outer wall (or just between the room and a hidden hallway), such that there was no way around the stone, the meld into stone spell would also make it an excellent emergency escape that happened to also happened to be incredibly durable.

Stolen from a previous post, but a detect thought spell paired with an area of effect trap can be quite interesting as the PCs thinking about how to disable the trap will continue to trigger it. Placement is key obviously, it needs to be at a point where the PCs would have to make a decision.

Additionally, I would lean on traps that could apply conditions to the PCs that would make future traps harder to deal with/ identify. Its a good way to eat up healing resources.

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Collapse the Caves

The wizard can get in and out with Dimension Door. Everyone else has to dig while fighting off kobolds.

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