Puzzles and Traps in Roleplaying Games

After a week off, I’m back with some good old-fashioned Dungeon Master advice:

I’m a newer DM and I’ve really enjoyed your blog over the last few months as, along with other blogs I follow, you have given plenty of helpful advice to get me started. I’ve been wanting to experiment with more traps and puzzles in my dungeons, what has been your experience using them? And what would you suggest to better utilize them?

p.s. I hate hipsters too

Thank you for the question, and thank you for fighting the good fight against the hipster menace.  I know of no greater threat to the unity and stability of our nation.  But on to the question at hand: how do we effectively utilize traps and puzzles?

Good traps and puzzles can really make for a unique and fun challenge when done well.  But what is a well designed trap/puzzle, and what makes a crappy trap/puzzle?

I group puzzles and traps into a four different categories:

  1. Traps
  2. Puzzles
  3. Puzzle Traps
  4. Riddles

Traps are the standard, mostly straight forward “disarm me or get injured” type of obstacles.  A trip wire, a pit trap, a poisoned treasure chest – they don’t have any purpose other than to try to kill the unaware and careless.

Traps are great to sprinkle our world with.  They serve the purpose of keeping the characters on their toes, and allow the Rogues to have something useful to do other than stealing things.  Be wary of over using them though, as you can create excessively paranoid PCs that meticulously search everything, all the time instead of doing anything useful.  It also gets old and annoying when every door and hallway they step through explodes.  Not to mention, it’s unrealistic: what sort of responsible dungeon owner would want to have those kind of repair costs?

Here is a list of DM and Player submitted traps on DungeonMastering.com.

Puzzles are how I refer to the more cerebral obstacles.  They require thoughtfulness to overcome, and their main intent is to deter rather than destroy.  A puzzle could be anything from having to remove the correct book from a bookshelf to determining a complex sequence of lever and button pushing to open a door.

Puzzle Traps don’t need much explanation.  They combine the elements of Traps and Puzzles into one.  I have creatively termed this amalgamation a Puzzle Trap.  These should only be used on puzzles that can realistically be solved before the PCs die, otherwise, you’re just a dick.

The iconic Golden Idol trap.  Or is it a puzzle?  It’s a Puzzle Trap!

And finally, Riddles: we all know what a riddle is, and they can be a heck of a lot of fun, but they should be used the most sparingly of all, because if your Players have to spend twenty minutes every session trying to solve a riddle, they’re going to hate you.  You’re not that clever.  You’re just annoying.  Quit it.

For a more in-depth discussion of Riddles in D&D check out this article.

Out of all of these, Puzzles can be the most challenging to utilize well.  The most important thing to keep in mind when using puzzles is to not get overly complex.  We may think we’ve done an amazing job of creating a puzzle, but if the PCs can’t figure it out, it’s worthless.  As with most things in roleplaying, the key to good puzzles is to not overdo it and keep things balanced.

When I say ‘balanced’, what I mean is have an assortment of simple puzzles and more complex puzzles.  Think about combat: do we always throw the most challenging enemies we can at our Players?  No.  They would be pissed off, or dead, or both.  We mix things up.  For every Dragon you toss at them, it’s good to balance things out with an easy slaughter of Orcs.  This helps your Players feel more accomplished.  Treat your Players like a good woman: go over the top every now and then, but be sure to remind them of how great they are often.

So how do we relate this to puzzles?  I like to think of it in terms of Indiana Jones.  In Raider’s of the Lost Ark, the weight on the pedestal trick is an example of a fairly simple puzzle.  There’s only one thing to figure out, and you’re either successful or not.  If we look to The Last Crusade, the cavern at the end of the movie is one long, giant puzzle.  This sort of thing is what you want to save for the really climactic moments.  It’s complex, it requires the use of multiple abilities (Intelligence, Dexterity, etc.), and it’s deadly.

The “guessing game” can be a simple, but stressful puzzle to throw at Players.

It would be very anti-climactic if we only tossed hazardous and difficult puzzles at our Players.  But there’s another important thing to keep in mind when constructing Puzzles:  NEVER make a puzzle your Players can’t solve.  This is easier said than done.  We may think the puzzle is obvious, but that’s only because we designed it.  If you see your Players struggling for a long time with something, don’t be afraid to fall back on rolling the dice.  Let them make an Intelligence check.

Remember, it’s not our Players that are solving the puzzle, but their PCs.  It’s easy to forget this and expect that our Players should be doing all of the thinking for their PCs.  But what about the daft Player that rolled an 18 for Intelligence?  We don’t make the scrawny guy playing a barbarian prove that he can lift two hundred pounds over his head, so why make one of our more mentally challenged friends struggle over a puzzle his PC should be able to solve?

There is a line to tread here though.  Even when giving hints, its good to keep them vague.  A mental challenge isn’t satisfying for a Player if we give them the answer because they got a good roll.  But hints can go a long way toward making things less frustrating.

To recap: Puzzles are awesome, but don’t overuse them, and don’t be an ass.  Hope this helps!

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to dungeonmastermind@gmail.com, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in the webcomic, One Die Short.

This entry was posted in DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy, General Roleplaying and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Puzzles and Traps in Roleplaying Games

  1. Pingback: Variety is the Spice of Roleplaying | Ask the Dungeon Master

  2. Pingback: Daily Traps | Ennead Games

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