Traps & Puzzles: the Art of the Setback

by Roger Hannah

   Greetings, fellow gamers.  This past week has been a little trying for our venture due to some issues with loading speed and the like.  Consequently, my blog post got delayed while we sought to get the glitch corrected so you all can get back to shopping.  It's no accident with all the website drama that setbacks have been on my mind for several days.  That led me to my topic for this post: traps and puzzles in your D&D campaign.  These elements are definitely a double-edged sword in that they can become an interesting alternative challenge to the typical monster brawl or they can bring your story to a standstill, frustrating players and DMs alike.   

   Traps and puzzles have been a key element in D&D from the beginning.  Several of the top 30 modules of all-time, as selected by the editors of Dragon Magazine in 2004, include innumerable devices of lethal cunning to challenge character skills and ingenuity.  Notably, the Tomb of Horrors is often termed the the "deadliest dungeon ever created," a reputation that is well-earned in the original AD&D format, given the hefty percentage of traps compared to monsters and the fact that many of the traps allowed no saving throw against instant death.  Gary Gygax himself called this one a "thinking person's module, and if your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy", the idea being that it should prove a strong lesson in using the party's brains over the party's brawn. 

    Traps and puzzles, however, potentially serve a useful function in other types of adventures beyond the "unbeatable dungeon" scenario.  I find these much more alluring as part of my gaming philosophy is that you can't "win" D&D like Monopoly or Sorry.  I also dislike the notion of pitting the DM against their players.  Telling the story together is the end goal of the RPG.  Encounters including traps, combat situations, puzzles, social interactions, negotiations and so forth end up driving your story forward and keeping the action exciting and engaging.  There are a few rules I like to follow in using traps/puzzles that are worth considering.  These basic principles can help make sure you don't stumble into any potential DM pitfalls as you liven up your gaming sessions.  

Simplicity is the Better Part of Valor

  In an effort to devise something unique and unusual for your players, you may find yourself feeling you need to reinvent the wheel.  Traps and puzzles don't need to be especially complex to add to your story and give your players a challenge.  My personal favorite "thinking person's dungeon" is White Plume Mountain, a tale wherein the party may be tempted to rescue three renowned magical weapons that have been stolen by an evil wizard, Peraptis.  One of my favorite moments in this module comes in the search for the trident, Whelm, where the players are faced with a series of platforms, hung with chains from the cavern ceiling at progressive heights, featuring a pool of volcanic mud below that periodically spews forth in geysers toward the ceiling.  The idea is that PCs will need to come up with strategies to get across the obstacle while avoiding taking a fall or being scalded by the mud.  Any number of solutions might be found for this situation, depending on the players abilities, choices, creativity, teamwork, and so forth.  At its essence, despite the deadly dangers and the dramatic scene within the volcano, it remains a simple set up, navigating the path while avoiding the hazard by whatever means you may.  The fun of watching the players come up with how they will overcome this basic setup is much more enjoyable than seeing them become frustrated by an overly complex but equally dangerous obstacle.  

Be Disciplined in Using Traps

   I have played in a couple of one shots over the years that purposely focused much more on the intellectual challenge of overcoming the puzzle or obstacle rather than the heavy combat encounter. In each of those cases, the DM was VERY CLEAR that this would be the case but, even so, some of the more combat oriented players ended up bored and frustrated by the experience.  No DM wants to end up with players who are not having fun.  If you want to encourage the hack-and-slash crowd to expand their vision of what the game can be, the key is to be up front about it and make sure they are at least willing to explore those avenues with you.  As with any game session, you also need to read your players.  Should eyes start to glaze over as the puzzle oriented players seek to outwit the mechanical challenge you have set the party, make sure that you have a random or prepared combat encounter close at hand to keep a good gaming balance.  To be honest, very few of the puzzle crowd hate combat so including those preparations from the outset will only be a win-win for your game session.  

    Overuse of traps, in a general sense, can also be a problem.  I have played in game sessions where just about every stone upon which a PC steps seems to trigger some terrible danger--pits, slashing blades, poison darts, etc.  If this is the type of challenge you seek, that may be fine.  In most games, however, having so many hazards around every corner only creates paranoia among the PCs that likely will devolve into an incessant string of ability checks to find or avoid them.  That will only slow down the game session to a snail's pace, frustrating you and your players alike.  Remember, the point of the game is cooperative storytelling.  Grinding your story to a halt is the last thing anyone wants.  Use your traps as story elements that build toward the intent of that tale.  If you do that, you should present challenges worthy of your players that will be  more memorable than frustrating.  

Traps Have to Make Sense  

    The final key point is to ensure your trap or puzzle makes logical sense where it is placed.   Remember the scene in Galaxy Quest where Sigourney Weaver and Tim Allen round the corner in the bowels of the NSEA Protector  and see the "chompers" feature, prompting Ms. Weaver's  diatribe lambasting the scriptwriter for throwing in an obstacle that made no logical sense in the context of the situation.  Believe me, players will find it just as annoying and irritating.  Given the deliberate nature of such a device's creation, you have to think in those terms when you design your encounter or dungeon that will feature the trap.  Use it to help build your story, whether that proves to be a one shot or a longer campaign.    For example, a clever, sophisticated device, featuring a magical element, would make sense to be guarding the inner sanctum of an evil wizard's lair.  It makes less sense to be  placed randomly in a cave passage in goblin party's hideout.   The former case should be a long-expected challenge to the party before they confront the "big bad".  The latter would likely be something more simple or crude, given the nature of the adventuring area.  Those make sense in the context of the environment.  If you reversed the style of trap, the crude hazard might seem underwhelming given the power of the party's opponent and the magical one would seem very odd in the goblin hideout.  Either way, the trap detracts from the story as it will come of as more of a randomized hazard rather than an purposeful element that plays a logical role in the story you and the party are spinning together.    

    Taken together, these three principles should help make traps a useful and fun element in your gaming sessions.  These ideas also extend to other elements you might include in your planning.  As players age, both physically and in their time playing the game, they usually become more motivated by the depth and intrigue of the story rather than the grind of the dungeon crawl.  Keeping your game focused on what the players (and you as a DM) want out of the game will keep everyone happy and having fun.  And isn't that the point?