Traps: Challenge the Players and the Characters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 27, 2011

Sometimes it’s difficult to separate what the player knows from what the character knows. The reverse can also be true, in a manner of speaking. There are going to be times when the character would have certain knowledge or information that the player would never ever know themselves. This is just part of how the game works. You have to accept it if you’re going to play RPGs.

When it comes to combat there’s rarely any concern between the separation of player and character knowledge. Combat has clearly defined mechanics that involve a lot of dice. It doesn’t matter that I’m not proficient with a great sword, if my PC has the appropriate proficiency then the mechanics account for that and I keep on rolling my dice.

Where this becomes more troublesome is outside of combat. During the non-combat parts of role-playing games players have to be more mindful of separating what they can do from what their character can do. This situation can be troublesome when playing characters with exceptionally high ability scores or playing characters with exceptionally low ability scores.

During the past couple of weeks I’ve come face to face with this conundrum. I’ve been working on some articles about traps and puzzles for Dungeon’s Master with Dungeonmaster Johnny, one of our new contributors. He’s come up with some fantastic ideas. However many of his puzzles challenge the players and not the characters. I personally enjoy a good brain teaser, but I don’t want to spend an hour of real-time while the real-life me tries to figure out how to escape from a trapped room. I’d prefer to have a way to solve a puzzle that involves at least some mechanics that relate to my PC’s numbers.

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with challenging the players. It all depends on what kind of game you enjoy. Both approaches have merit and both have drawbacks, as we’ll discus below.

Roll to Solve

One reason combat is so popular in D&D is because everyone gets to roll a lot of dice. D&D may be a role-playing game but for many people it’s more of a “roll” playing game. A lot of players just want to roll dice. Combat is designed with this in mind. However, the parts of the game that are not combat-centric, the actual role-playing parts are usually completely devoid of dice. Or they were until we got skill challenges in 4e D&D.

Skill challenges provide us with a way to quantify non-combat challenges. There’s still role-playing (or at least there should be) but the outcome often hinges on a few dice rolls. If my character has a high Diplomacy it doesn’t matter that I don’t actually know how to address the king in real life. As long as I clearly indicate to the DM that my intention is to draw on this skill to accomplish my goal, the Diplomacy check (the dice roll) will determine if I’m successful or not. Of course, good role-playing could (and should) still influence this roll.

With this in mind let’s go back to our original discussion on traps and puzzles. If a party is faced with a trap or puzzle one way to solve it is to make it a skill challenge. This can be incredibly simple and take a few minutes or this can be more complex and take significantly longer. For the more complex take on this I think there should be a good mix of real-life challenge for the players combined with some dice rolls. Relying solely on my knowledge as a player belittles any skills, powers, items or feats my character may have that make him suited to overcoming these kinds of obstacles.

Let’s assume that I’m playing a Rogue. He’s got a high Intelligence as well as training in Thievery, Perception and Dungeoneering. Finding the mechanism to disarm the trap and open the door should be easier for him (in-game) than me (out of game). I’m not saying that all I should have to do is roll a few d20s and voila the door opens because that’s boring. What I’m saying is that there should always be some way to work the mechanics of the game into the solution.

Free-Form Role-Playing

On the flip side of this discussion are the players that would prefer all dice rolling and game mechanics be removed from puzzle solving. These players enjoy the brain teasing and head scratching that accompanies these problems. Situations like this appeal to imaginative players. They can demonstrate their creativity and have the PC try the most outrageous things in order to achieve success or eliminate it as the right answer.

If the DM’s done his job well it could take a long time before the party comes up with the right answer and frees their characters. I found that when I played the Tomb of Horrors last year many of the obstacles were designed to challenge the players rather than the characters. It was certainly a different kind of D&D adventure for me. I enjoyed it but I was equally frustrated at many points along the way, especially because my character was supposed to be so good at solving puzzles.

I guess the way you present traps and puzzles to your group will really depend on the players themselves. I’ve got to believe that older and more experienced gamers will be more receptive to challenges without dice or actual D&D mechanics. These players have likely seen it all and will welcome the change as refreshing. I believe the opposite to be true for newer and younger players. They’ll expect every problem to have a solution that the dice can solve.

The frequency with which you plan to use traps and puzzles in your game may be the real determining factor when it comes to this dilemma. If you use them sparingly, then a dice-less challenge that forces the players to solve it out of character can be a lot of fun. However, if they have to do this with any regularity (I’d say more than once per level) than I’d be more inclined to use at least some mechanics.

The Solution

I believe that the best solution is a mix of the two extremes. Have the players role-play the situations and try to solve the puzzle without dice. After a certain set of conditions are met (a timer should be among the conditions) then the DM can start to allow some checks for PCs that would have reason to make them. Having everyone make a Thievery check probably seems wrong. I’d limit it to just the PCs trained in the skill or those who have a chance at stumbling across a clue (for example, only PCs who specially said that they examined the statue to the right of the door).

This rewards players with characters who possess the right tools (physically and mentally) as well as the players who are most engaged in the role-playing. The guys who just says I search the room for a secret door shouldn’t get the same reward as the player who searchers for scratch marks on the floor that might indicate a door has swung out from the wall.

By combining the best of both worlds you give the players who want to be challenged a chance to solve the puzzles using their real-life knowledge yet present them with an “out” if they get stumped and can’t figure out what to do next.

What kind of puzzles do you prefer? Would you rather rely on your real-life wits to overcome traps or do you prefer to let the dice and your character’s abilities determine the outcome?

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1 Kiel Chenier September 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I often try to present traps/puzzles as a free-form roleplaying and puzzle solving problem. Oftentimes, though, this doesn’t work out so well.

With my home games its usually fine, but in a setting like, say, LFR, it can kill a session. Most players don’t like puzzles or anything that challenges them outside of their character sheet. That said, when the ‘real’ intended solution is out of reach or cannot be fathomed by your players, fall back on dice rolling.

2 JSchuler September 27, 2011 at 3:24 pm

The puzzles I present to my players are not road blocks, they are forks in the road. If the players cannot figure them out, something negative but interesting happens. All puzzles have an obvious but wrong solution (e.g. “let’s just sit around for the next two hours and try every possible combination”), where I can hand-wave and say you “solved” it, but then the negative but interesting thing happens (in my most recent game, it was incrementing down a disease track, other times it might be releasing a swarm of gelatinous cubes or teleporting the party gods-know-where). There’s no dice rolling to solve, as each puzzle has an escape hatch in the form of failure, and I have designed all the puzzles expecting my players to fail (so they don’t lead to frustration or a TPK).

3 Baffal September 27, 2011 at 8:27 pm

I think one of the challenges that’s worth pointing out is that new players don’t always have the vocabulary to please more experienced DM’s and the DM’s need to be sensitive to this. As a DM for Encounters with frequent new players its easy to forget that a new player says “I search the room” while an experienced players gives you details, because they know that those details are frequently rewarded…

DM’s need to tease the role playing out of new players… I find this is met with a great response by new players as they just need to learn how to be specific and in the process give their characters some depth…

4 Sunyaku September 29, 2011 at 2:36 am

Prior to the start of my home campaign, I conducted a survey of players and determined that most of them really, really hated puzzles. Thus, I have not had to deal with this too much… and although some of the more elaborate traps feel like puzzles sometimes, it hasn’t been too big of a problem.

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