I'm planning to run a Dungeon World campaign based on a classic D&D Super Endless Quest book called The Ghost Tower which, in turn, is based on a classic D&D module called The Ghost Tower of Inverness.

There is a trap in this book based on Chess, where the party are each

equated with a given chess piece. The party members do not know what piece they are associated with. If they step on a square that their piece cannot step on because that is not how the piece moves, the square lights up and they suffer damage.The party has to guess what piece each of them represent in order to cross safely.

Here's the problem:

  • I've already stolen the idea for this trap for another game.
  • I made it a series of rooms, each room representing a square on the chessboard.
  • I even had zombies representing opponent chess pieces wandering from room to room.

I still want to include this trap, but I'm struggling with how to make it fresh for the players. They're probably going to recognize it for what it is: a chessboard. But even if they do, I want them to have fun with it. I think I can play on their expectations and throw them for a loop.

How can I change the trap to do this?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Warning: this trap might be cool in a videogame, or in real life, or whatever, but in an RPG will likely turn out to be kind of lame. I'd avoid it. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 21:20
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ A lot of the answers here are not Dungeon World specific, are they addressing your question? Based on your main question about changing the trap, I suspect yes. If so, maybe the DW tag is inappropriate here. \$\endgroup\$
    – neontapir
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 5:38

10 Answers 10


Give them the old Twist McGee

  • Have it be a really obvious chessboard pattern, magically dress them as their pieces, etc. But allow various rules and illegal moves, and have the enemy pieces know and use them, leaving the PCs always 'one step behind'. Additionally, force them to move by having their square light up and one round later get hit by fire, and have two 'chess players' deciding who is allowed to move.
  • Dress everyone up as a chessboard, and then trap random squares with no real chess rules relationship whatsoever.
  • Have one character locked in a room. With a chessboard, on which the pieces move. Every time a 'piece' makes an illegal move, they get damaged, not the piece. But the move stands. And on their turn, they can pick up and move any of their own pieces, including PCs.
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ I especially like the idea of giving them the old bait and switch. i.e. having a chessboard mapped out, maybe even a chess motif like knight and rook statuary. only the game they're actually playing is checkers. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or Shogi, say. Or for incredible fun, Carcassone. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 16:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Shogi would work since it's effectively a variant on chess. Carcassone would not, since it in no way resembles chess. I'm thinking of having the party play Fox and Hounds. So, only one of them can enter the board at a time. They must move like a Checkers King or suffer damage. And they must evade four regular Checkers pieces and get to the other side. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 16:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ There should be no permanent penalty for being trapped in the game. If you can no longer make a legal move, the square beneath you falls out and you are trapped in a room below. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 16:46
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ But imagine, if wizards created an interactive magical carcassone board and someone later weaponized it, and your PCs stumbled onto it with no idea of how the rules worked but that every time they made a bad move it shot them lightning \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 16:46

Add something to it.

One idea:

  • The room provides no hint of being a chessboard (i.e. no dark and light squares).
  • Players fall though the floor when making an illegal move (there is a path allowing the fallen characters to quickly return to their comrades).
  • Players can use some kind of skill check (e.g. Discern realities in Dungeon world; for D&D like systems one could use perception, knowledge arcana or knowledge dungeoneering) to detect which squares they can walk on and which they fall through.

Other idea:

  • Add a sense of urgency: move through the obvious chessboard (trap) room
    • while it is collapsing; or
    • while the goblin horde is close by and their crossbows are just in range of hitting the party.
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's definitely going to be a skill check. Since this is Dungeon World, it's Discern Realities. I'm also thinking to let them capture some goblins they can use as red-shirts to see how the game is played before putting their own lives on the line. Hope they don't just kill the goblins when they plead for mercy... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 15:44

For Your Consideration: The Fairies' Checkmate

This puzzle rests on two pillars.

The first is how to present dungeon obstacles in Dungeon World. When considering what to do to the PCs when there aren't monsters about, when "the dungeon" is the only thing to act, you need to consider what "the dungeon's" motivations are - or, rather, the particular mix of the original builder's motivations, its current occupants' motivations, and ways to express environmental threats as though they had agency.

Fortunately we already know what the Ghost Tower of Inverness is all about - the PCs are effectively running around inside a combination lock constructed by the Great Galap*, which he knew how to operate because he built it, and where he occasionally dumped the hapless for sport. But time is merciless and has ground some features of it down, creating hazards born from decay. So, something like:

*yes, I know that's not the whole of the original name but I'd rather not reproduce it

The Ghost Tower of Inverness

Impulse: Guard the secrets of the Great Galap

  • Demonstrate the intellect of the Great Galap
  • Yield to the power of the Great Galap
  • Succumb, at last, to time

The second is that there are more chess pieces in heaven and earth than have been dreamt of in your philosophy. They're broadly called "fairy pieces", and they can do a whole lot of things. There are fairy pieces that move like knights but the L is larger, fairy pieces that take a bishop step and rook it from there, fairy pieces that make any number of consecutive identical knight moves, fairy pieces that capture at a distance, fairy pieces that have to hop to the opposite side of a piece to capture it.

Don't they sound like just the sorts of playing pieces you'd bring in to demonstrate the intellect of the Great Galap?

The Setup

So if you're thinking along the theme of "human-scale chessboard", how is something like that going to yield to the power of the Great Galap? How would it open to him but not anybody else, while still being theoretically solvable by mere mortals so he can laugh at them for not doing it?

Well, one possible way is that it's reenacting the last few moves of a game of Wizards' Chess (featuring various fairy pieces) that he was particularly proud of. Galap would simply wizard the stone pieces from some sideboard out onto their starting squares and act it out in an appropriate way, but the PCs will have to step into various annotated starting squares and act like the pieces would.

The Execution

In this way you can have a puzzle that offers opportunities to suit a class's abilities. Not directly suited, necessarily, but the elements of the puzzle make certain demands of the party that various PCs may be suited to step up to.

  • What's going on here, what are these pieces? This is a question one of your lore-inclined characters can certainly answer.
  • How do we solve this puzzle? This one's a bit wider. Galap's checkmate is probably not a matter of lasting record in the wider world, so straight lore is right out. But an investigative character may have earlier found a personal journal, lavished with protective spells among other rotting books, that recorded Galap's games, or at least the ones Galap won. An intelligent character may be able to work out how the checkmate progresses just from the setup of the board in front of them. A perceptive character may pick up hints about how it progresses based on the wear and tear of the play surface as Galap acted out the combination.

Both of these should fail heavily forward since they're blocking the adventure from continuing. When players skunk their rolls (yes, "when", the dice never cooperate) they're not clueless but have some painful experimentation in front of them to pick the right result from a couple of alternatives. Or they can get lucky!

As for the movements of the pieces themselves, here are some challenges that may appeal to various PCs:

  • This piece makes long leaps. A PC has to cover a large distance on the board without touching down on it until they get to where the leaper would stop its movement.
  • This piece makes a strikethrough capture. A PC can keep themselves planted on the board, but they have to topple a heavy human-scale stone statue, representing the capture, without notably breaking their stride.
  • This piece makes a capture at range. Someone (not necessarily the related PCs) needs to topple a heavy human-scale stone statue once the PC is in position.
  • This piece is the decoy that opens up the defenses. The PC's "piece" gets "captured" as part of the checkmate and the PC will need to leave their square and not touch the board until the puzzle is complete.
  • Succumb, at last, to time. Remember that one? One of the squares that a PC needs to land on has fallen down as the earth shifted, or otherwise become inactive, and the PC will need to activate the square by mystic trickery or a 50-foot drop.

Carrying Forward

I hope this answer comes too late to be helpful for the original problem, because the alternative is the most legendary of scheduling conflicts. But as a special case of a general solution for adapting an earlier module for Dungeon World, take these points and go forward:

  • take the history of the existing dungeon and query the motivations of the actors involved, to create "the location moves" to help you extemporize
  • when your game world contains things from the real world, like chess, it can be beneficial to research their history; a story needs to be plausible to its audience, but history can contain all manner of implausible twists you can productively use to vary things from players' expectations
  • when creating obstacles in the game, consider how they represent challenges to the PCs, not to the players

You could use other games with different movement rules: Stratego, Chinese Checkers, Three Player Chess, Risk, Of Mice and Mystics, Chutes and Ladders, Aperture Labs Portal, RoboRally (where players have to preprogram their moves a certain number of turns in advance, regardless of subsequent events), etc.


The chessboard could just simply be a theme. Show the players a game in progress with a map. Pick a color and the pieces of that color need rescuing. The party can be the "king" only able to move one room at a time, but they are the only piece that can move for their side. When the other side moves to take a piece, a (one-sided) battle takes place where the other side wins... Unless the party is in an adjacent room to save the object/critter/person inside. Optionally, when they find a "dead" piece a party member can take some critical equipment piece (a helm for a bishop, a sword for a knight, a shield for a rook, a pike for a pawn, a crown for a queen) and become that for future group moves and when they make a legal move they receive a slight buff based on the piece they are.


There was a chess variant called Battle Chess where the pieces moved as usual on a chessboard but upon entering a square with an opponent's piece did not automatically capture. Instead there was one round of battle with each piece having different combat attributes, and generally unable to defeat each other in one round. During the next 'chess' move additional pieces could be moved to the same square and then another round of battle would happen with the combined attributes of all pieces in the square (up to a maximum occupancy of 4 pieces per square). Eventually one opponents piece(s) would be vanquished in battle.

The players and NPC's already have their combat attributes you would only need to apply movement and occupancy restrictions on them. Also the chess variant described above did not have ranged weaponry, which would have an interesting effect on the outcome.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That was sort of how the trap worked when I used it last time. It was a series of rooms rather than a chessboard in one room where everyone could see every piece. When a zombie entered the room, they had to fight it. Good idea though! I remember lots of good hours lost playing Battle Chess on the NES. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 15:38

Another possible twist, loosely based on Jack Lesnie's idea:

Make the chess theme really obvious: giant chessboard on the floor, rows of black and white chess piece statues on either side of the room, leaving the players a four-square corridor to pass through.

However, the chessboard is completely irrelevant; the only trap is that, at a moment of your choosing (e.g. when the players are halfway across the board) the chess pieces come alive and charge the players. Cue massive battle with the players in the middle of it.

You could give all the chess pieces stats that echo their movement and role in chess: the pawns are basic low-level enemies, the rooks are massive brutes, the knights can jump, etc. I'd suggest making at least the kings and the queens into magic-users: the queens attack with offensive spells, while the kings control the battle with tactical spells. Don't put any direct movement restrictions on the pieces, though; remember, the board is just a distraction.

(Having the black and white pieces start fighting each other if the players retreat is an option, though, and would give the players an escape strategy in case things start going badly. Of course, even if they managed to escape and let the pieces fight it out, they'd still have to deal with the survivors of the winning side...)

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this idea. It's a little bit like judo in a way. You think there's going to be resistance, so you put all your "weight" into it. Then, when there's no resistance, you're off-balance and easily caught off guard by the real attack. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 19:12

Add a non-standard topology to the board. A couple ideas off the top of my head:

  • Though it appears flat, the board acts as though it is on a torus. In practical terms, that means that going off the edge means that the player wraps around to the other side (both top/bottom and left/right).
  • The squares on the board are shuffled. So it's still a standard 8x8 (or whatever size), but instead of a1 being the the lower left, it's somewhere in the middle. But if a player is standing on a1 and is a knight, for instance, their only legal moves are b3 & c2 (which are also not in their normal places!). In order for this one to be playable at all, the environment would probably need to give them clues as to what the legal moves are (even though they might be really far away).

The combination of "rooms" and "chess" makes me envision a chess game where each player can only know moves and positions of his or her own pieces. Until a room is entered, it's unknown if the opponent has occupied the 'square'. I'd think that that opens a lot of "trap" potential. (Trivially, e.g., the only winning play might be to invite Fool's Mate.)

And that makes me think of Gordon Dickson's Dorsai 'Tactics of Mistake'. Perhaps a series of plays all give some (apparently) tangible reward, yet the sum of the rewards creates a deadly burden. Apparent rewards can always be traps in themselves under the right circumstances. (E.g., you collect gold, weapons, etc., as you take control of various rooms; then weigh so much that you crash through the weak spot. Better to take the frugal route in such a case.)

In chess, a pawn may only move forward. Could that imply an ability to see a room about to be entered through a doorway, yet be unable to see what happens behind after leaving a room? Should chess piece characteristics be applied to players? Would a 'bishop' be able to spiritually influence an outcome? Could an effect be transferred through adjacent rooms that have open doors in a line? (Could a 'knight' somehow bypass a room?)

Lots of possibilities if imagination is freed.


Put them on opposing sides.

Have the PCs assume the roles of a certain piece with two of them as kings who order the NPC pieces to move. As in Ghost Tower of Inverness, any deviation from a legal move (either by the squares they move to or moving out of turn) by the PCs results in an electric shock. You can also add the feature that they are teleported back to the square they moved from.

When a piece is taken, the taking PC or NPC must land a killing blow. This is generally automatic, but let PC's defend themselves against very tough pieces trying to take them.

The goal is to reach a conclusion of the game (perhaps opening the exit from the room) in which no PCs are killed. But a draw is optimal since checkmate results in the King being reduced to 0 HP and dying.

Note: In the original module, the PCs did not have to guess what piece they were. The room started them on the back rank set-up square of their piece, so they could deduce their role provided at least one of them knew how to set up a chess board.


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