Traps and puzzles are almost essential to a good dungeon crawl. They can add greatly to the atmosphere and make things very exciting. However, it’s easy to solve these with simple skill rolls. Here are a few ideas on how you can make traps and puzzles even more interesting.

I must admit, I like a good dungeon crawl. No, I really like good dungeon crawls. I think that is the ultimate form of D&D and a well designed dungeon has all three pillars of a good fantasy RPG; combat, exploration and roleplaying.

A huge part of the dungeon crawl is spotting and disarming all sorts of traps and figuring out different puzzles. However, these are often overlooked and quickly solved with a skill roll or a two. Traps and puzzles can add greatly to the suspense and have your players at the edge of their seats.

Fear is a powerful motivator

Last time I played through Tomb of Horrors every player in our group had three characters and the group had more 10’ poles than could be deemed ecologically friendly for the local woodlands. It wasn’t just metagaming, though of course that played a huge part in it, but also us fearing that we’d quickly lose characters to the tomb’s many traps.

Don’t forget to use and play with that fear. The moment the characters enter the dungeon they should fear that every room could be trapped. But remember, you need to make sure the characters (just as the players) feel this and the feeling musn’t be forced on them.

Here are a few ideas on how you can induce fear:

  • Less is more – By focusing on few details, but describing them well, you help your players visualize the events. Their imagination will fill up the rest.
  • Ask them for details – Do they use their left hand or their right hand to open the door? Make a note of it. If the opportunity arises, make a use of it and make it count. Did the fire trap burn the fighter’s sword arm? Make it count.
  • Rolling dice – Just by rolling a die behind the screen, asking for one PC’s skill or save modifier, then nodding and noting something down, will have the player’s wondering. Let something happen one time you roll.
  • Take your time – When things are moving fast in-game, e.g. combat, take your time. Go full force into describing what’s happening, make the dice rolls have a dramatic effect on your descriptions. When things are moving slow in-game, speed them up.  

Of course, don’t overuse any of these and remember, the dread should be felt, not imposed. It’s all about show, not tell. And remember to have fun.

Traps should make encounters more interesting, not longer

There are alternative rules out there for traps, that make traps harder to disarm and even call for multiple skill checks. If that’s what you like, go for it, but to be honest it doesn’t rock my boat. I think that traps should make encounters more interesting, not longer. I want traps to add flavour to the encounter, not to make it a die roll fiesta.

The hardest trap I’ve ever encountered was a simple trapdoor. However, when my group encountered it, the trap was already sprung, the door was open revealing a deep spiked pit. We were being chased by a group of Nothics down a long corridor. All we needed to do was to jump across the pit. Simple, right? What we didn’t know was that on the other side was another trap, if triggered it activated a Gust of Wind spell that sent us into the pit. Once we saw what happened to the first character to jump across the pit, we quickly learned that we were caught between a rock and hard place.

Here are a few ideas on how you can make traps more interesting.

  • Avoid invisible traps – It tends to make things more intense if the trap is visible and the characters are trying to figure out how to avoid it. If the walls have clear scorch marks or murder holes, they will spend time figuring out how to avoid the trap. Go into details when describing clues like that.
  • Use traps to make combat encounters more interesting – Fire jets that spurt from holes in the wall every other round while the characters are fighting the salamanders certainly makes that encounter more dangerous.
  • Reward clever thinking – Players often come up with awesome ways to circumvent traps. Reward clever thinking and punish bad decisions. Don’t go hard on punishing bad die rolls, because that was simply a question of luck or the lack of it. If the players were trying to disarm the trap in a clever way, should they suffer all the ill effects of the trap if they spring the trap due to a bad die roll? Always be fair.   
  • Great risk should have great rewards – Have a build up in traps. The most dangerous traps should also call for the greatest risks and have the greatest rewards. Walking across a trapped rope bridge across a deep gorge where lava flows to reach the treasure chamber of the Fire Giant Chieftain is not only dangerous but also quite deadly.
  • Avoid die rolls – Allow players to roleplay and figure the trap out for themselves. If you go: “Make a Perception check. Ok, then make a Dexterity check. Ok, you disarmed the trap,” you deny the players the fun of figuring the trap out and to be afraid of it. Use die rolls sparingly and only when absolutely needed.

An interesting trap is the trap you know of and has serious effect on how your character would deal with a certain situation. And remember, traps and monsters make a great cocktail.

Puzzles that test the characters and entertain the players

Few years ago I ran the old AD&D module Labyrinth of Madness. In order to complete the dungeon the characters need to find 20 magical sigils and touch them. However, they only can find these sigils one at a time, which means that they need to backtrack over and over again in order to find all the sigils. To make things harder, as the module is written, the characters only get one clue to begin with to get them started and without these finding these sigils some doors and hallways are unlocatable, which means that without finding the first sigil the characters don’t get far.

After the characters had found 5 sigils after three sessions one of the players approached me and said, that all this backtracking was simply boring and that he felt that the story came to a standstill everytime the group needed to find the next sigil. After speaking to the rest of the players we decided to quit the module and find something else to play.

Puzzles can be fun and add so much fun to sessions. However, you need to make sure that the puzzle tests the characters, not the players, and that the puzzle is a part of and adds to the narrative. Here are a few tips for good puzzles.

  • Leave clues – Perhaps the most important thing, is to leave clues for the puzzles where the characters can find them.
  • Don’t test player knowledge – Much as it’s fun to have the players solve a lock that is a Sudoku puzzle, you are in fact testing player knowledge and their skill in solving Sudoko. Make sure that your puzzle tests character knowledge.
  • Puzzles should be solved with actions – Despite everything, the puzzle in Labyrinth of Madness has its merits, and one of those is that to solve it the characters need to act. They need to do something. In the Last Crusade Indiana Jones needed to figure out how Iehova was spelled and step on the right stones in order to get pass the 2nd test while in the temple where the grail is kempt.
  • Have complications – What makes the puzzle in the Last Crusade fun is that it has a complication, Indiana Jones at first tried to spell the word Jehova, but then remembers that in Latin it is spelled with an I. Make sure you have a complication in your puzzle, as it makes it both more fun and less predictable.
  • Do not have a puzzle solution rely on a single die roll – Use the dice to help the characters along, but the solution should not rely on a single die roll. Let the characters solve it, preferably through teamwork, and use the dice as an auxiliary measure.

Puzzles are a great way to entertain the players and test the characters. Make sure that your puzzles are fun and add to the narrative.

Know your players

Make sure that you know your players and that your puzzles and traps are in line with the players’ expectations. Still, throw them a curveball every now and then and make sure that they always stay on their toes. And of course, keep it fun.   

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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn has for long sailed the Astral Sea, eager to broadcast his heretical gospel to the uninitiated.
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