Puzzles, riddles and traps are all staples of any Dungeons & Dragons adventure. They help keep the players on their toes, and force them to think instead of just hacking and slashing their way through a dungeon romp. However, more often than not these tropes are becoming tired dead obstacles in the party’s path when they should be engaging and challenging instead.
One of the main reasons for this issue is because a lot of puzzles, riddles and traps are static in nature. The party just runs into them and have only two possible outcomes: they trigger the traps or answer the puzzle wrong, which leads to them getting hurt, or they just halt in their tracks to think of an answer.
The pacing just breaks when the party has to spend fifteen minutes trying to solve a riddle to open a door, or when they got poisoned out of the blue just because the rogue forgot to look for traps.
So how do we fix this? The solution is to turn away from static obstacles and turn them into active ones. Consider some of these examples.
Infusing Timed Obstacles with Combat
Here’s one of the simplest ways to make an obstacle engaging…add a constantly moving threat such a quick combat encounter.
Say the characters are in a room where water is rising and the doors are sealed. While the team is looking for the hidden switch to get out of danger, they are suddenly attacked by a band of Sahuagin. This instantly ratchets up the tension.
You can even mix this in with riddles and integrate the puzzle with a battle. One of my favorite examples is to let the party find a riddle near the entrance of the dungeon. Later on they come into a room where all the doors lock in place and in drops a Gelatinous Cube.
Unfortunately for the party, the enemy has three different keys inside it and only one of those keys will open the door ahead of them.
If they take the wrong keym the room fills with petrifying gas. The only way to know which key is the right one is to solve the riddle from the beginning of the adventure.
Of course, they also have to deal with the fact that the keys are in the Gelatinous Cube and they will have to risk going inside it or will have to struggle to defeat it.
Want a magically sealed chest that has an explosive trap rigged to it? The party hears a countdown sounding off and they’ll need to sing in order to stop it from blowing up. Traps like this are a good way to keep everyone in the party engaged with what’s going on.
Active Obstacles That Are Always in Motion
A pretty standard trap would have the party come across a door rigged with poison darts that fire if you don’t have to key or don’t disable the traop first. That’s how most traps go in D&D. However, these are traps just waiting to be undone. If you really want to keep the tension at a high level, make your obstacles more active.
Instead of a door rigged with poison darts, how about a spinning wheel in the center of the room? This wheel has four dragon-shaped spokes that spit out fire as it rotates.
The party will need to reach the switch – which is located inside one of the dragon heads – to turn off the contraption and unlock the door. Now the rogue becomes more essential as he has to investigate and disarm the trap before everyone gets burnt to a crisp.
You can also take the simple door trap above and add a single element to create more tension and a stronger threat. As the rogue is disarming the poison dart trap on the door you can have a wall of spikes coming in from behind. Perhaps there’s a series of random ice jets coming out of the walls that the rest of the party has to deal with until the door is opened.
Finding the Traps Shouldn’t be the Challenge
One of the main issues with the traditional trap set-up is that once they have been spotted they’re easy to disarm. A rogue simply has to roll high on a Perception Check to find the trap, roll high on Investigation to figure out how it works (some DM’s go right to rolling to disarm once the Perception Check is made) and then roll for Thieves’ Tools use to disarm. That’s three instances where luck has a strong say in things. A highly proficient rogue can easily succeed on all three instances once they reach a certain level.
This is certainly great for the rogue, but it does present a quick problem: traps now become a redundant mechanic. You’re leaving a lot of the fun to fate and the only control the player has is in how they build their character.
Simply finding the trap shouldn’t be the main challenge. Instead, let it be obviously in sight so that the main difficulty is figuring out how it works and how the rogue can use his or her specialties to disarm it. Now you’ve got a trap that involves the whole party, ensures everyone feels they are still in control of the situation, and the rogue still has a moment to shine.
Be sure to mix these obvious traps in with some standard D&D trope traps so the rogue can have moments to take advantage of his build and flex his proficiency. After all, he’s a rogue for a reason.
An Adventure Filled with Great Puzzles and Traps
There is one adventure we can recommend that is filled with such proactive traps and puzzles: Little Shrine of Horrors by M.T. Black. This adventure is available on the Dungeon Master’s Guild website.
Designed almost like a tribute to Tomb of Horrors, the adventure focuses on puzzles and traps more than it does on combat. However, these traps and puzzles are mostly very active and never halt the pace of the game.
There’s one instance where the team has to go through a room where the floor is covered in religious symbols. The only way through is to step on the symbols of good deities. Stepping on the symbol of an evil deity will harm the character. It’s a great puzzle because it still keeps the players moving, but also lets the cleric or the wizard have a moment in the spotlight to show off their Religion skills.
Another instance is where the team has to fight a unique golem on a narrow bridge, blocking the party’s path. However, this golem only moves when the party moves and when it is struck with metal it sparks and causes an explosion.
While there are still traditional traps like a slightly raised floor tile that activates an acid splash when stepped on, it is still a great adventure filled with good examples of proactive puzzles and traps. It’s also relatively short so if you’re looking for some trap ideas to get your mind going, then this adventure is a great start.