From time to time I see this popular tidbit of DM advice tossed around. It’s good advice, but I often feel it doesn’t get fleshed out. The words of wisdom go something like this…
“Don’t nullify the special abilities or equipment the players have earned or gained.
For example, if an adventurer has exceptionally high AC, it’s bad form to make every encounter all about dexterity checks. Yes, dexterity checks represent the most common check in the game, and a paladin wielding a full plate will need to make them from time to time. However, if you only throw these types of attacks at your heavily armored adventurer, then the player will end up feeling a little letdown. They got that armor for a reason, and now it’s pointless!”
Is this good advice? Absolutely!
Is this complete advice? Hmm, I’m not so sure.
My issue with this morsel of wisdom? It’s a negative statement. It tells you what not to do, but not what to do. Many DM’s complain about 5E giving players and adventurers a plethora of options while putting the burden of constructing a challenging game on the Dungeon Master. They feel that a culture of “the DM will fix it” drives new expansions to the core game.
While my personal feelings on this are mixed, I can admit that Dungeon Masters must certainly work hard to keep the game balanced. And I wholeheartedly believe that this is no easy feat, but I also believe that simply telling DM’s what not to do isn’t particularly helpful. I think we can expand upon the principle of refraining from depleting player abilities to include a framework for active design.
How do you make 5E challenging?
If we can agree that placing your Wizard in an anti-magic cage or dropping your armor-clad fighter in a vat of metal corrosive acid is a cheap shot, what do we do with their game-breaking abilities? I suggest looking at the party, looking at the abilities, and designing a scenario that forces players to use those abilities. If they forget about a power, class feature, or magic item, we F%$! up their day!
D&D does one thing fairly well, distribute power through various classes effectively. Arguments have been made about some classes being underwhelming were overpowered; which is a post for another day. I feel that the game provides enough flexibility for the DM to easily construct challenges focused on a single class feature or ability.
I suggest that we take these high-powered abilities and build a gauntlet requiring each ability to overcome a challenge. The gauntlet could be complex and occur in one room, or various challenges could be sprinkled through a dungeon crawl. The point is, every class feature, every magic item, every feat and special ability can be flipped into a challenge. These challenges make every adventurer the hero of the moment.
But that’s not all!
I also advise that we design these gauntlets to attack the weaknesses of every present class save one. We don’t nullify their strengths. We build a series of problems that doubles down on the majority of each adventurer’s shortcomings except the one player we focus on. Then we design the next challenge around a new adventurer. Rinse and repeat designing class-specific challenges until every player has their day in the sun.
How to handle high AC?
It’s easy to suggest turning an “overpowered” feature into the necessary puzzle piece to a challenge, but how do you do that? And then, what do you do with the rest of the players?
Why don’t we look at balancing out devastatingly high Armor Class? Let’s take a fighter strutting about in full plate armor and shield in this hypothetical scenario. Rounding out the party, we’ll have a wizard with a typical spread of spells, and a rogue with all their trappings.
With this roster, it’s pretty easy to concoct a challenge that requires each class.
Dealing with an armor class 20 is the easiest step. A fighter wearing all that metal can go through a literal gauntlet much easier than the wizard or rogue. This is doubly important if the gauntlet offers not only high attack modifiers but damage modifiers as well. Rogues and wizards just can’t compete in a straight fight.
Next, let’s write up a lever in a virtually unreachable location. “Poof” this problem requires a mage hand. Why and how someone would place a lever in an unreachable location can vary depending on the flare and design of your dungeon. Has an earthquake severely shifted the terrain resulting in the misalignment of essential mechanical features found within an abandoned gnomish temple? Perhaps a mad wizard placed the mechanism in a peculiar and virtually unobtainable location because he knew only a worthy band of heroes possess the power to reach it.
Finally, the rogue must lean upon her most valued and tried and true tools, her lockpicks. Rarely does another player possess the skills necessary to crack a lock, so working together all three must use their strengths to offset each other’s weaknesses. That gauntlet turns a band of mercenaries into a team of adventurers!
What can we do with this?
Ultimately, my suggestion expands upon the notion that DM’s should refrain from nullifying player abilities. Instead, I suggest crafting a series of trials where each individual challenge requires the strength of an individual character. Below, I provide a scenario and battle map for the Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard combination mentioned above. I use detailed notes to describe the necessary steps each character/class must employ to traverse the treacherous landscape. My scenario employs basic class features any low-level table would potentially wield.
A DM managing a 3rd or 4th-level party might find this gauntlet useful, so if you would like to download a high-quality version of the map and notes below, subscribe to my mailing list. This puzzle will be automatically mailed to you, and you’ll have regular notifications for future articles, fresh puzzles, and maps. so if you are interested in more maps and scenarios regarding higher-level or specialized subclass abilities, please leave a comment below. I would be excited to expand upon these ideas.
Without further ado, I submit a challenge fit for adventurers…
Philip, a 7 ft tall Firbolg dripping with roguish charm turns to his companions and says, “Well, this looks like fun!”
Willy nervously adjusted his star-studded, silk, conical hat, and Brenda’s heavy sigh reminded Philip of the steam-powered automatons they just dispatched as he sensed the Amazonian woman’s antagonizing stair from behind her heavy steel helm.
“What, it will be fun!” The towering mischief maker grinned and stroked his knotted goatee. “These ancient gnome ruins have the best puzzles.”
“Best puzzles?” Brenda growled, her husky voice now reminding Philip of the sound of coal being shoveled into a blazing furnace. “Why don’t you tell that to Benny? If we head back to the spinning saw room, you could sweep what’s left of him into a pile and explain why you find gnomish puzzles so interesting!”
“It’s not my fault he just ran in! How often do I say, ‘let me search for traps before walking through strange doors’? Did Benny the bullheaded barbarian listen to me? Of course not!
“What, I can feel you glaring at me through the tiny slits in that bucket you call a helmet.”
Brenda’s retort sounded as though it were being pushed through clenched teeth. “Just because he was a Minotaur doesn’t mean he was bullheaded!”
As his companions bickered over semantics and misplaced frustrations, Willy the Wizard wandered over to the latest obstacle before the ragtag band of adventurers. The wide-eyed human ran a trembling hand across his face as he took stock. Like many of the gnomish traps encountered thus far, the adventurers would need to work together to overcome the challenge before them.
The following puzzle is designed for a three-player party. The party is comprised of a wizard, a heavily armored fighter, and a rogue. Each aspect of the puzzle requires a class feature to be employed for the challenge to be overcome. However, each element of the puzzle can be removed and used in a completely different scenario. Therefore, a DM running a party with a different composition can pick apart this puzzle and apply the elements useful for their table.
Alongside any obvious points of interest within the room, detailed information obtainable through skill checks (perception and investigation) will be mentioned. However, specific DCs will not be listed. It is up to the DM to understand the character’s capabilities and to provide an appropriate numerical value. That being said, the amount of information gleaned from the various skill checks will be categorized on a scale of poor, good, and excellent. “Poor” represents the result of a poor skill check, “good” represents the result of a moderate skill check, and so on.
Scale the DC to what you feel is an appropriate challenge for your party. This is not meant to be an exceptionally difficult room to overcome, but rather an interesting puzzle to solve.
The Adventurers stand in a 55’X15’ room. Behind them, the open archway they just passed through tempts them with escape. Before them stands a second archway filled with the interweaving bars of a lowered portcullis. To the right of the bard exit, stands a 4’ tall, polished limestone podium. A complex mechanical device made from polished electrum seems to be built into the surface of the podium. To the right of the portcullis, a glowing red river of magma flows from a crack in the wall. The malted rock pools and fills the left half of the room.
Upon performing a minimal examination (poor perception check) the adventurers will find that beyond the initial portcullis stands two more portcullises blocking their path. A moderately detailed examination (good perception check) will reveal an amber gemstone set into the bars high upon the portcullis. An exhaustive inspection (excellent perception check) will reveal that there is also a diamond set high into the next portcullis, but the third portcullis is too far away to determine whether or not a third gem resides in the final gate.
Performing a poor inspection check of the gnomish mechanism situated upon the limestone podium reveals what appears to be a lock. A good inspection check uncovers an underlying mechanical system hidden within the lock. The specific nature of that system, however, remains a mystery. Performing an excellent inspection will expose the potential for a deeply interwoven trap and multiple mechanical facets. Beating this lock will not be simple.
Pool of Lava
Passive or Poorly perceiving the pool of lava will reveal only that it is very hot, and occasionally bubbles rise to the surface. A good perception check reveals that the flow of lava seems to be churning the pool and creating a degree of instability within the magma. A profoundly excellent perception check allows the adventurer to surmise that a pocket of air may be trapped under the flow of molten rock. At any given moment, superheated gas may burst from the pool’s surface and fling malted rock in every direction.
The following steps are required to overcome this puzzle. I recommend that once the puzzle begins, you proceed based on turns like initiative. Allow each player an opportunity to solve their part of the puzzle.
Step 1- picking the lock
The challenge begins when the rogue pics the lock seated upon the gnomish mechanism, very low lock pick check. After the lock is defeated, the panels on the mechanism open slightly and another lock is revealed. Simultaneously, a second podium rises from the pool of lava. Upon this new podium sits three levers. A ticking could also be heard coming from the mechanism the rogue just defeated.
The scenario will then proceed to the next adventurer, which should be the Wizard. When the rogue’s turn comes around again, the ticking emanating from the machine will stop and the podium bearing the three levers will descend back into the lava. Simultaneously, a spray of acid will be ejected from the mechanism. The rogue will need to make a low to moderately difficult dexterity saving throw to avoid being burned.
If the rogue immediately attempts and succeeds at picking the second lock, the second podium will not descend into the lava, nor will the trap be sprung. If the rogue fails to pick any of the following locks, the trap will spring and a dexterity saving throw will need to be made. Every round a lock is picked, more of the mechanism will open and a new lock will be revealed. This will continue until the puzzle is concluded.
Upon failing a lock pick check, the rogue’s turn ends and the next player starts their turn. If the rogue fails another lock pick check on their next turn (two lock pick checks in a row), then not only does the electrum mechanism spray a cloud of acid, but the second podium displaying the 3 levers lowers back into the lava.
Step 2 – Three Levers
When the new podium rises from the lava, even a poor perception check will reveal that each lever is made from a different precious metal. In order from left to right, the levers are made from silver, gold, and platinum. The podium and its levers are too far away to reach. The wizard will need to use Mage Hand to pull a lever. Any other attempts to reach the lever will be foiled by the extreme heat of the lava pit. If a grappling hook is attempted, the rope will burn once it is over the magma. Arrows will likewise burst into flames if fired at the levers.
Each lever will open one of the portcullises. The value of the lever corresponds to the value of the gemstone set in each of the portcullises. The first archway is denoted by an amber gemstone. Since amber is the least valuable of the three gemstones, this archway is opened with the silver lever. The diamond archway is opened with the platinum lever, and the third archway, which is denoted by a ruby, is opened with the gold lever. Every time one lever is pulled, a lever that was previously pulled resets. The corresponding portcullis also resets.
Therefore, the archways and corresponding levers are presented to the adventurers in this order.
1st amber portcullis-silver lever
2nd diamond portcullis-platinum lever
3rd ruby portcullis-gold lever
*Note: more portcullises and levers can be added to increase the difficulty of this challenge.
Step 3-the Floor Is Lava
The DM should make a 50-50 role to determine whether or not pocket eruptions within the pool of magma occur. If they do occur, the wizard, who must stand near the pool of magma in order to cast mage hand, will need to make a dexterity check. If they fail, they take an appropriate degree of damage for their level and are unable to concentrate on pulling the lever. If they pass, they take no damage and can pull a lever.
Alternatively, if the wizard has a spell that could reasonably be argued to disrupt the eruptions (Ray of Frost), then they can use their turn to cast that spell instead of pulling a lever. On the wizard’s next turn, the DM would not make a 50-50 role. There simply would be no eruptions, but that would in turn leave the fighter trapped between portcullises.
Step 4-Mad Dash: The Amber Chamber
Finally, the fighter must pass through the gauntlet while the rogue and the wizard attempt to open a path for them. There are 3 obstacles the fighter will need to contend with as they proceed.
Between the 1st and 2nd portcullis, a shower of poisonous darts will rain down upon the armor-clad fighter. This is assuming their AC is a minimum of 18. The fighter will need to make a Dexterity saving throw, but will quickly realize that the overwhelming number of darts makes it virtually impossible to dodge the attack. Instead, they will need to rely on their powerful armor. This challenge is more of a barrier preventing other classes from attempting the gauntlet. Only a player with high AC has a chance of surviving.
Make 3 appropriately leveled attack rolls. A 1D20 +3 should suffice. If the attack makes it through the armor, it does 5 points of piercing damage and a moderate to a high degree of poison damage. Again, this is designed to prevent any player not wearing heavy armor from entering. Scale appropriately for the particular needs of your table.
Step 5-The Diamond Chamber
Between the 2nd and 3rd portcullis, large polished spheres of marble will be ejected from round holes situated along the walls. The fighter (whose strength should be their primary ability) will need to make either a strength-saving throw or an athletics check. The type of check they choose to make is important.
If they fail a Strength saving throw, they will take moderate damage. On a pass, they will take half damage from the bludgeoning projectile. If they fail the athletics check, however, they will take a high degree of damage. Failing the athletics check will render a higher degree of damage because they are overextending themselves in a dangerous environment.
That being said, there is a reward for passing the athletics check. If they roll well, the adventurer will catch one of the marble spheres and throw it at one of the holes firing the bludgeoning projectiles. If they pass 3 athletics checks, the mechanism used to launch projectiles will be damaged and cease functioning.
Ultimately, this means that if they take the athletics check they will either fail and take severe damage or pass and take no damage and potentially destroy the machine firing upon them. If they take the strength saving throw, they will either take moderate damage or half the moderate damage depending on whether they fail. Fortune should favor the bold.
While in this chamber, every time one of the other adventurers plays a turn, the fighter should have to choose to make one of these checks. This will increase the degree of risk and suspense at the table.
Step 6-The Ruby Chamber
Upon entering the final chamber, the fighter will find the room is filled with thick spiderwebs. As they proceed through the room, they will need to destroy the webs. Every attack will clear a 5 ft to 10 ft space. The spiderwebs will be vulnerable to fire, so using a fiery attack will clear 10 ft. All other attacks only clear 5 ft.
Finally, on the far side of the room, mounted on the stone wall, an unremarkable lever gleams in the adventurer’s torchlight. The fighter will need to pass through the mass of webbing to reach the final lever, but as they cut through the silken strands, they notice something out of the corner of their eye. Eight legs emerge from under a white clotted mass of web.
You Must Go Faster, You Must Go Faster!
Unfortunately, as soon as the ruby portcullis slides open, the flow of lava quickens. While the fighter tangles with an eight-legged monstrosity, the other adventurers must deal with a room slowly filling with lava. Every round after the wizard pulled the gold lever, the increased flow of magma consumes a 5 ft by 30 ft strip of floor. Of course, the red-hot malted rock consumes the lower half of the room first. This blocks the path the adventurers used to enter the first chamber.
Every round results in a 5 ft strip of safe land to be covered in lava between the adventurers still within this room and the archway they originally entered through. The only way out is through the series of archways the fighter has already passed through.
Of course, as soon as the fighter pulls the final lever, all 3 portcullises will lift and the traps within each chamber will deactivate. The fighter will need to decide whether they should cut through the webbing and reach the lever or fight the spider. Multiple monsters can be used depending on the level of the fighter. The monstrosities should be at an appropriately low to moderate level. The fighter should be able to handle them quickly. The goal is to create a sense of excitement by forcing the player to decide between fighting the spiders or cutting through the web and reaching the lever.
Meanwhile, the wizard and rogue will need to make dexterity checks to avoid being struck by a glob of magma when pockets of superheated air erupt from within the encroaching lava. The wizard, again, can use an appropriate spell in an attempt to prevent eruptions. There should be plenty of time for the fighter to reach the final lever. Stopping and fighting the spider may slow this down considerably. The dexterity checks made by the other players should increase the sense of urgency regarding the encroaching magma.
Philip looked over the final chamber and a grin spread across his face. “See, my friends, gnome ruins have the best puzzles!”
Willie, still doubled over and panting after running down the hall to escape the still encroaching magma, looks up and rasps, “you… Are… A MADMAN!!!”
A deep rumble begins to build from under Brenda’s heavy plate armor. Philip grows nervous when he sees the blood-splattered great sword in the Amazonian’s hand begin to tremble. Finally, as though she were no longer able to contain herself, the towering woman clad in steel erupts in thundering laughter.
Between gasping breaths, chuckles, hoots, and snorts, she manages to say, “Yes, that was so much fun! Too much fun!”
Willie pulls his conical hat down over his face to hide his expression of ever-growing horror. Phillip’s grin grows ever wider and self-congratulatory. He proudly walks up to the newly revealed hidden door and says,
“Ha ha, I am so glad you’re getting into the spirit of things! Now please allow me to check for traps. I’m looking forward to seeing what challenges await.”
Finally, when the last lever is pulled, a hidden door cracks open. This door could be concealed in the wall, the floor, or even a hatch in the ceiling. Place it wherever you deem appropriate for your dungeon. This map and puzzle are designed to be modular. Pick each challenge apart as needed, or add challenges if you have other classes at play.
The idea behind these challenges was to require players to use their features and to think tactically. The fighter needed to decide whether to catch the boulders and fling them back at the walls. The wizard needed to decide whether he wants to pull a lever or freeze the magma with Ray of Frost. Rogues love using their lockpicks, but an ever-changing complex lock requiring the other players to react to their passes and fails maintains a sense of danger and suspense.
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Until next time, keep adventuring!