Traps, Triggers, and Puzzles 6

If you missed the first of this series you should go back and read it. In short, I am gathering a collection of traps, triggers, and puzzles for new GM's to use for their dungeons. Hopefully these will prove useful, or at least interesting, to create your own.

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 effects, both beneficial and hazardous.

Puzzle – An obstacle that requires a series of actions to complete, usually involving a level of intellectual challenge.

Trap: Barrel of Ooze

At one point I decided to run a group through “The Tomb of Horrors” as it was fabled to be absolutely brutal. Turns out we never finished because it wasn’t fun for us. However, the module did a wonderful job of showing me some incredible traps. The barrel of Ooze is one such trap. In its simplest form, the trap is a barrel that has an ooze in it that looks like a normal fluid. As soon as an adventurer puts their arm in to grab a key or coin from the bottom of the barrel, the Ooze begins to eat at their flesh. 

You can extend this to be any container with a fluid (like a bathtub, a bucket, a swimming pool, etc). It could become even worse if you have another mechanism dumping the barrel and the ooze. Donkey Kong just got a lot more dangerous.

Trap: Spears

One of the most iconic dungeons in cinema history is the dungeon at the start of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of the traps in that dungeon were a series of spears that shot out from the wall with a skeleton attached to them. This trap of weapons coming out of walls is a simple trap to flavor. Unlike arrows, this trap can retract and re-arm with not much hassle. 

The simplicity of this trap makes them incredibly universal. Stick them at the bottom of a pitfall, have them shoot out from behind a false door, stick them at the bottom of a chest so when it opens it spears whoever opens it. They have a reach that is limited only by how long the shaft of the spear is. 

A diabolical use is in combination with other traps. For instance, there are jets of fire that spew out from the walls. What the players might not notice is on the other side of the jets of fire is a line of spears that extend at the same time as the fire jets. When they roll to make it past the fire jets, they get surprised by the spears that are coming at them from the other side.

Trigger: Sight

While this trigger is far more common with Sci-fi settings, it is completely possible in fantasy settings as well. A disembodied eye or a magical sigil that looks over an area is a perfect sensor for a trap. You can hide these in plain sight. Statues are a fantastic source of fake eyes and alluding to the statue’s watch over the party may give them a hint that steers them in the wrong direction. 

This sight can also be different kinds of sight. It could be a magical sight, where a magic item or aura sets off the trigger. Darkvision is another where the party may need to mask it in magical darkness to proceed (possibly hiding another trap/trigger from them). The most painful sight for players would be a Truesight vision. This kind is when the trigger should be unavoidable, but not always have a negative consequence. Incorporating this type of vision into a puzzle may reduce some headache from the players.

Trigger: Smell

The sense of smell seems so underused in tabletop games besides describing a scene. Well, this can be used as a trigger for a trap or puzzle as well. Just like we have detectors for natural gases, we can have sensors for different smells. 

The best way to implement this into a trap or puzzle is in tandem with another element that emits or stops emitting a smell on a different trigger. For example, the party could be fighting a flesh golem. On its death it explodes in a cloud of stink, which could trigger another element of the puzzle. You could include various valves that release certain gases and in a certain combination they could open a door or create a spark. There is a lot of potential when you start to dig into what smells.

Puzzle: The Countdown

Possibly my second favorite of classical puzzles, is the Countdown. This puzzle is incredibly simple in its design and is purely a psychological puzzle. There are 3 elements to this puzzle: a button, something locked, and a massive display of some kind for the numbers 0-10. There are two aspects to this puzzle to get it working well.

First is the give focus where it is needed. Don’t distract the players in the room with anything else other than a potential danger. For example, here is a way you might describe the room:

“You enter a tall room with a dias in the center. On the dias is a large button. On the opposite is a large stone door with no handle. [Have the players roll perception] You notice near the top of the room there are holes coming out of the walls. At their base they appear worn, as if erosion from use ate at the stone. [After several moments of them looking about the room] The door entering this room slams shut. A large number 10 appears above the opposite door in magic runes.”

This gives focus to the danger, the button, and the countdown timer. The second part of this puzzle requires you to apply pressure to the players. In game, start counting down. Do it slowly, giving maybe a good 5 seconds between the countdowns.

Hopefully your players are freaking out. The hope is that they believe when the countdown timer hits 0 that the room may be flooded. In desperation they will hit the button eventually. They always press the button. When this happens, have there be a dramatic pause. Then reset the timer, continuing to count down. This will either give the players more of a panic or they will have figured out the solution.

The actual solution is to let the countdown hit 0. At that point the door or locked thing will open. It’s a fun little puzzle that poses no real danger and makes players think twice about hitting future buttons.

Puzzle: The Password

One of the very first puzzles I ever ran for a homebrewed game was this interesting communication puzzle. The main elements are a sentient talking door, and the password to enter written above the door. When the players speak the password, nothing happens. The one who needs to speak the password is the door. 

The challenge for the players comes down to whether or not you have the door be aware what the password is and have an aversion to speaking the password or whether it is completely unaware. The players must convince the door to speak the password in a clever way. This could be through creating a riddle competition where the answer to one of the riddles is the password, or a quiz where an answer is the password. This entirely depends on the personality of the door, but I suggest making it where there is some aspect of its character that allows it to completely forget that the password is something it is trying to keep from saying. My favorite is the obsession with riddling (because there are so few places to put riddles in games naturally).

Hopefully these have proven to be valuable for your table. Remember that you can use each of these elements in parallel with other traps, triggers, and puzzles that I have covered with this series.

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