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This is a stupid question, I know, but can a trap (non-intelligent) ready an action or hold an action so as to attack people when they enter its area? For example, can a burst trap, once sprung, wait until it can catch as many people as possible before going off every round? If not, is there a rule somewhere that says that it can't or is such a thing just plain dirty pool... or, is it a dirty trick at all considering that, otherwise, characters might be able to just wait out the traps initiative and then run by without taking any damage at all (in which case, a lot of traps become fairly pointless)?
As far as I know, there's no rule that either permits or forbids traps from readying or holding actions. I probably wouldn't do it, myself, though.
Traps aren't meant to be standalone threats; they're intended to be used in concert with other threats, like monsters or terrain features, so that they can't be simply bypassed in such a manner.
I should point out the traps in question are 3 Spiked Chain Pinwheels. They are guarding a square which from which characters are expected to solve a 6 success/3 failure skill challenge (anywhere adjacent). Also, overriding the chamber is a Stonfang Pass Quake, 2 specters, and a lake of acid that no reasonable person would ever go near. If the chain's can hold actions, this is an encounter. If not, then the characters can pretty much wait for the chains to change areas and walk up to the SC area and perform the skill challenge (they'd probably have to engage the SC every other turn, but that would kind of just make it tedious).
I appreciate that traps aren't stand alone in D and D (4e), but that seems like a game play thing: I like traps and puzzles more than combat encounters. The reason I'm asking is because a trap that can hold its action would actually be pretty good as a stand alone threat (and not just an excuse to have less Specters in an EL+1 encounter). On the other hand, I can see reasons why it would be a little too much.
Traps are largely treated like creatures, so you might as well let them delay like creatures. Also, since you want to use them as stand alone objects instead of combat complicators like they were designed (which isn't a condemnation, mind you), explain or rule their attack as a trigger and not as a turn in the initiative. Once discovered make it fairly simple and straightforward what the trigger is so that the players can anticipate and plan how to deal with it. Beyond that, I would advise against genuine readied actions to catch as many as possible in a burst. One, because readied actions don't work that way. The trigger has to be clear, so defining the trigger as "when I think the most pcs will be caught are in range," doesn't cut it. Secondly, it is antagonistc to your players. Once they have figured out how the rules work, it will seem unfair to suddenly change the rules midsentence just to cause the most harm to them.
I'm figuring that the trigger for the held action would be someone entering the blast radius. That way, the trap basically becomes a zone. I said that I wanted to get the most characters in there, but I'm really thinking it would be nice if the trap caught one character (the threat might ward more).
based on the text as written, it sounds like the normally just run all the time. I think if you want to make them a surprise, they could be inactive and require a decent perception to spot them, and then have them trigger when a certain condition is met by adding trigger plates or something similar.
I don't have my DMG handy to confirm or deny whether traps can ready or delay, but considering its a mechanical device that simply keeps running, rotating 1/4 turn and firing two blasts in opposite diretions every round, I wouldn't let it delay unless you had some other sort of activation system, such as a magical eye that can also be disabled.
For either of those changes I would consider bumping up the XP/lvl at least a little bit.
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