The best part of the 5 Room Dungeon Model is that it creates a well-rounded dungeon. The model takes advantage of the “RP” part of RPGs. While most gaming groups naturally devolve into Monty Python Quotes and Mass Destruction, many people forget that the “RP” stands for role playing.
Combat is the heart of any RPG, and even a system like Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 that balances combat-based encounters with role play-based encounters still has more rules for combat than role play. A third of the Player’s Handbook, in fact, consists of combat and magic rules. Combat is the most exciting part of the night, and we will never get rid of the hack-n-slash part of the RPG.
However, the 5 Room Dungeon model calls for a room involving a challenge solved by brainpower, not “wasting it with my crossbow.” This is the role play or puzzle challenge.
In the last installment, we discussed “The Whispering Cairn” (Dungeon #124). After a complicated puzzle to gain entry to the real tomb, the PCs encounter the ghost of Allistair Land. In life, the spirit was the son of a local farmer. He ran away from home and died exploring this tomb. Allistair solved the puzzle out front and managed to get to the tomb entrance, but slipped and broke his neck trying to open the vault. Turns out, the mechanism is broken anyway and Allistair will walk through the wall and open the vault for the PCs if they find his body in the pit below and give it a proper burial on the Land farmstead.
I have a confession to make. I am actually terrible at coming up with puzzle challenges. I’ve experimented with interactive fiction (IF), and almost all of my puzzles are “fetch quests,” involving finding the right item and using it in the right space or giving it to the right person.
If you need creative help to design puzzles, I recommend picking up a few helpful books:
- Book of Challenges (from Wizards of the Coast)
- Grimtooth’s Traps series (link is to the most recent)
- Riddle Rooms series (#1, #2, #3)
If the puzzles therein don’t suit you, you can always modify them. I find that they’re good for inspiration in creating my own puzzles I own several of these and refer to them, both to steal puzzles, modify the existing puzzles for my current needs, or to inspire me in creating my own puzzles.
Know your players. Tailor the puzzle difficulties to their collective brainpower. I used a puzzle from Riddle Rooms #3 in a Dark•Matter game, and the group spent so long on the puzzle that I sketched out stats and invented a backstory for the barista at the coffee shop they were sitting in just because I was bored. Ultimately, my new NPC solved the puzzle for them just so we could move on with the adventure.
I didn’t use many puzzles or riddles in that Dark•Matter campaign after that disastrous night. My group wasn’t stupid — three people and two of three were highly intelligent, experience gamers. The third, not. Still, I thought that they would breeze through that puzzle. It turns out I drastically underestimated their affinity for puzzles.
That just leaves us with the task of creating a role playing or puzzle challenge for the sample adventure. Old temples are usually rife with puzzles, at least if Indiana Jones movies are anywhere close to reality. And I think they are. So let’s go with that.
I drew inspiration for this puzzle from the Fist of Politeness, which I found by searching for “temple” on the subreddit RPG_puzzles. The PCs encounter a door within the temple, and it is sealed tightly. Should anyone attempt to force the door, pick the lock, or break the door down, they are magically compelled to cease all of their attempts (as though affected by antipathy) unless they make a saving throw.
That means our trap would look something like this:
When the PCs approach the door, read aloud or paraphrase the following:
A heavy iron door blocks your way. You see no keyhole or doorknob, no switch or any other obvious way to open it. There are dwarven symbols inscribed on the door.
If any character reads Dwarven, the pictographs read “Don’t be rude!” Characters who approach this door with hostile intent will get an immediate urge to vacate the area by any means available.
Trap: The door is actually a clever trap, with a solution so obvious that it might require everyone’s combined brainpower to even think of it. So far, the yuan-ti haven’t hit on the solution so whatever riches lie beyond are unspoiled.
Door Trap: CR 6;* magic device; location trigger (square in front of door);** automatic reset; spell effect (antipathy, DC 22 Will save allows target to remain in square but target is seriously uncomfortable and takes a -4 penalty to all Dex-based actions, walking out of the affected square removes the penalty); single target; Search DC 33; Disable Device DC 33.
* The CR for this trap is lower than it should be due to the easy solution to the problem.
**The spell effect triggers if and only if the PCs attempt to force open the door. This includes, but is not limited to, attempting to pick the lock, break the door down, or hit it with anything. If the PCs simply knock on the door, the antipathy effect is dispelled and the door opens automatically. The trap will continue to reset and function until successfully disabled.
Ad-hoc XP Adjustment: The PCs only receive XP for this encounter if they solve it by knocking on the door.
The role play or puzzle challenge need not be deadly. The one I designed causes no damage at all. It puts the players under a magical compulsion to leave the immediate area. Nothing more deadly than that. The point of this room is to give the players an encounter that requires their brains rather than their brawn.