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I'm looking for resources for designing complex challenges - something that's not quite a puzzle and not quite a trap, but somewhere in between. There are tons of resources for really complex or off-the-wall deathtraps (such as this thread), but, while good, they're mostly let's-kill-some-adventurers traps.

The kind of puzzle-trap I'm looking for was created by the builder not to deter or kill adventurers, but to test their mettle - both physically and mentally. Failure to solve one won't necessarily result in getting crushed by a boulder or impaled on spikes - but if the players can't figure it out, the dragon or loremaster who built it might think they're not worth dealing with. Some might require skill checks or combat, but others won't. They aren't pure riddles, where "A box with no hinges, key or lid, but golden treasure inside is hid" is written on a door, and the players must answer "an egg" for the door to open. They can incorporate riddles, perhaps, but old-fashioned riddles are often known by the players and new ones often don't make sense in many RPG settings. And they aren't simple traps that the rogue can disable using a Thievery check or two.

The ur-example is the set of puzzle-traps in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy has to use his brains as much as his reflexes. Tower of God is another story that uses many of the types of puzzles I'm looking for.

Additional clarification: I want to avoid puzzles that depend entirely on the characters noticing things. In general, players assume that if they make a perception check or otherwise say "I look around, what do I see?", the GM will tell them everything of relevance (depending on the roll). If the GM simply tells the players they see the relevant thing at this point, the puzzle is over. If they don't tell, then the players will feel cheated - and will likely slow further adventures to a crawl as they meticulously describe every single thing they want to look at, from every angle. This can be a good trick when used sparingly and correctly (such as when the important item is tossed in the middle of a long list of description), but in general does not make for fun adventuring.

My group plays D&D4e, but I don't believe this is a setting-specific question. This kind of puzzle can - and should - be equally effective in WoD, Fate, or most other systems, since it's not mechanics that determine the outcome, but the players' ingenuity and creativity.

Where can I find resources to help me design this kind of puzzle-trap?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You may find inspiration in point-and-click adventure games, and in particular the Myst series of games. These games are full of abstract obstacles with abstract locks. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 15, 2013 at 3:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Hand-E-Food I've played four games in the Myst series, and while they're very good puzzles, they don't tend to translate well for tabletop RPGs. Either they're outright puzzles that you'd just print out and hand to the players with a pencil (not what I want), or they rely on visual cues, world exploration, and observation that don't work well in the verbal medium of tabletop RPGs. If you can think of a good way to do it, though, please make it an answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Apr 15, 2013 at 3:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thatgirldm For my own purposes, I spent some time considering this, and I've come to the conclusion that it's not as hard as it seems. Myst puzzles are generally a combination of these three basic types: 1) puzzles that require players to recognise links between clues presented out of context in different locations, 2) complex systems governed by logical rules that can be discovered through trial and error, and 3) hidden object puzzles. The third type arguably represents some of the weakest puzzles in the series; One can design puzzles of the other two types that work in a verbal medium. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Apr 15, 2013 at 4:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ This isn't worthy of being a full answer, but when I want to test the ingenuity and creativity of players, I present them with a situation that doesn't make sense on first analysis. Generally, they'll come up with all sorts of experiments to work out what they're missing - and when they work it out, they'll try and look for a meaning behind it or a use they can put it to. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Apr 15, 2013 at 5:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure if this is enough for an answer, but a word of warning. Don't let whatever you do fall into the trap some games fall into. The character fights his way to the door only to find that there is only one key that opens it... on the other side of the world. Character gets that key and opens door 1, only to find right behind door 1 is door 2 whose key is in some forgotten temple on the OTHER side of the world. Of course, all of the lore in the world does not mention door 2 because "no one has been able to open door 1 yet". Frustrating! It's not challenging, just annoying. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Apr 15, 2013 at 18:45

4 Answers 4

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I highly recommend the fourthcore alphabet.

It is a series of tables with random base types and special properties yielding thousands of combinations. The two relevant sections are "T is for Traps" and "P is for Puzzles".

There's also a wealth of other information in there that could be used as inspiration for puzzles. I've drawn countless ideas from this resource.

Here's a sample puzzle I randomly generated in 30 seconds using the tables contained in the document:

A dozen statues – each depicting a royal figure or mythic warrior – must be arranged in order of lifespan, starting from the shortest. Two statues are already in place. However, the clues to the puzzle are only visible during different times of the day. Failure causes the trap to emit a noxious gas that on a hit, transports the character forward or backward in time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've been looking through this book and I'm in love. Nothing in here has to be lethal, and it all requires some real ingenuity to solve. Plus, tons of bonus flavor text and dungeon ideas. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Apr 18, 2013 at 5:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately the link is now pointing to a "not found" page at lulu. It might be worth updating the link to point to the PDF at DriveThruRPG, assuming it is the same supplement as the one from the original answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tobias F.
    Aug 4, 2021 at 7:22
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You might want to look at the Grimtooth's Traps series....

Lots of various puzzle-traps and situations with trap-like effects.

A wide variety of different levels of lethality, required player and/or character ability to overcome, and wonderful illustrations and excellent descriptions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Having looked through the first book, unfortunately Grimtooth's Traps is exactly the kind of trap I don't want. These traps are mostly designed to main or kill characters, often with little chance to save themselves beyond a perception check or saving throw. I'm looking for something that requires the players to think, rather than roll skills. \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Apr 17, 2013 at 18:25
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There is a small amount of inspiration to be found in Alastair Reynold's Diamond Dogs (novella with climbing a puzzle tower as a primary plot element). It's quite possible that those puzzles would be unsuited for your setting or player-group, though.

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All roleplayers probably know the good old puzzle where you meet two people, one telling the truth, one lying. Find out the truth. It almost comes as a reflex now that if I meet two NSCs, I ask one what the other would say. That puzzle has been overdone. To death and beyond. And again and again. Too many times.

However... there is more than just the simple version. To mock a mockingbird has an amazing collection of such puzzles. You can have a wise man asking for an answer, or a magic mouth on a door or maybe it's a quest to get the result because the result itself is worth something apart from being a riddle solution.

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