Dungeons should be filled with danger and contains the remnants of those who built it. Dungeons are built for many different reasons: to house ancient treasures, imprison powerful creatures, hide secrets, etc. In order to protect these treasures and creatures the builders create traps and puzzles to keep out unwanted visitors.
Not only do traps provide narrative, but they provide depth and danger to your dungeons. You can flavor traps using various kinds of triggers. It is suggested to vary the traps, triggers, and puzzles as to provide suspense, narrative, and prevents boredom.
One of the struggles I had was finding various ideas for different kinds of puzzles and traps. For this article I will be covering a subset of various traps, triggers, and puzzles you can use and giving different perspectives on already well known traps.
I am using the following definitions for my vocabulary:
Trap – A nonliving danger that is posed to the players that are activated with a trigger.
Trigger – A mechanism that activates some effect, both beneficial and hazardous.
Puzzle – An obstacle that requires a series of actions to complete, usually involving a level of intellectual challenge.
Darts are one of the iconic traps. These can be really good at surprising the players. What is great about darts is that they can be laced with poison to scale with the characters. As characters pass over a space or activate a trigger, these darts fly out of the wall to hit them.
While this is incredibly simple it can be used in interesting ways depending on placement of the trap. For instance while travel along a narrow passageway or narrow walkway having the darts fire at the characters along the length of the passageway or walkway.
Trap: Footsteps of the Pharaoh
While watching a show about a children’s card game I was inspired by this unique trap. While walking into a room the characters find a massive humanoid statue standing with one foot in front of the other. When in the area of this statue’s influence if the character has the opposite foot forward than the statue, the statue fires a burst of intense light coming from the statue’s eyes targeting the character.
The way I made this trap not obvious was by asking the player what their character’s dominant hand is. This is a pretty good indication of what foot they step forward. If using a grid every five feet the character has to avoid this beam of light. Either players will just rush and try to avoid all of the beams or they will take the slow calculated approach to it.
Trigger: Pressure Plates
The trigger that nearly everyone who has ever seen an Indiana Jones movie will know is the pressure plate. In simplest terms a pressure plate is a triggered platform that activates based on change in pressure.
This change in pressure can be interpreted several different ways. In the stereotypical fashion this is when a weight is applied to the platform, like an adventurer walking down the hall. It can also be the removal of weight, like a statue being moved off of the plate.
You can use a combination of these to also create a trigger, such as it activating once an applied weight has been moved off of it or returning a weight to the pressure plate.
A thin wire or string is stretched across a walkway creates a tripwire. In the real world this was used in booby traps that would set off explosives. The idea is that the individual activating the trigger would release the tension held by the tripwire by tripping over it.
Traditionally this is designed to be tripped by your legs, but with modern technology we have created electronic tripwires which can be triggered by anything passing over it. Put trip wires in holes that players reach their arms into. Magic can be used in place of technology for wireless tripwires.
Puzzle: Keys and Scales
The players behold a large stone sarcophagus that has been locked and sealed. Surrounding it are two large stone statues of dragons. Immediately in front of each statue is a stone table with a strange scale sits on each. The scale has a pin each.
On top of the sarcophagus are nine keys. On the wall it states: Eight of the keys are false and one is real. The false keys weigh more than the real key. Picking the wrong key will leave you breathless.
When the players place keys on the scales they remove the pin and it will reveal which side is heavier. Once it has determined which is heavier it locks into place making it unuseable. This means the players get two chances to weigh the keys.
When an incorrect key is used on the sarcophagus the dragon statues begin releasing a poisonous gas into the room. You can tailor this poison gas to your party.
Solution: Separate the keys into three equal groups. On the first scale weigh two of the groups. One of two outcomes will occur. The first is that one group is lighter than the other. The lighter group has the true key. The second is if they are even, in which case the third unmeasured group.
For the group you have determined has the real key you take to the second scale. Very similar to the first weighing you leave one key off the scale and compare the other two. At this point it becomes obvious which key is the real one based on this result.
Variant: You can increase the number of coins to twelve but it requires you to add another scale to make it feasible.
Puzzle: Pieces of a Statue
At the entrance to the dungeon you find a large stone Maul. Further in the players walk into a room with a large sealed door on the opposite side. In the center is a pair of stone feet with small pegs sticking out of them. There are six other doors not counting the large sealed door and the door you entered in.
In each of the further rooms the players will find stone versions of limbs. These will be guarded with a variety of traps and puzzles. The stone limbs are the following: Head, Left Leg, Right Leg, Torso, Left Arm, Right Arm. They fit together to create a large stone statue.
It appears to be able to hold a weapon in its hands. When the stone maul found at the beginning of the dungeon is placed in the statue’s hands it comes to life and attacks the player. When defeated the large sealed doors open.
I hope these puzzles, traps, and triggers gave you some inspiration. I plan on covering more puzzles, traps, and triggers in the future to cover more of these. With every trap and trigger in future you can use them in parallel with any other trigger to increase complexity (i.e. two pressure plates in order to open a door, pull two levers at the same time). It is best to try and match these to the narrative of the dungeon you are designing or reskinning them to work.