Traps and puzzles are staples in every DnD game, you can’t have the complete dungeon experience without a few traps for the barbarian to trigger before the rogue has checked for them. Puzzles, on the other hand, are fantastic tools that can be used to add more layers of depth to a dungeon. Yes, they lengthen the time it takes to progress through the dungeon, but the concept of a puzzle is so vague that it allows the DM an incredible amount of creative freedom.
When a DM places a puzzle in a dungeon, one of the first questions that should be asked is why. A puzzle adds another layer of defense, but why not just use a trap? This is where you sprinkle in some lore. Perhaps the people who made the dungeon didn’t want to keep everyone out, but only certain people. The puzzle itself could be something as simple as aligning disks to complete an image, or as complex as pulling levers in a specific order. Regardless, the puzzle should engage the player’s minds more than just simply figuring out how to complete the puzzle, it should aid in building the history of the world.
Using puzzle and trap combo can help to change the pacing of the game, as well as offer an opportunity to use real world objects for the players to interact with. Something as simple as an hourglass can turn a seemingly benign puzzle/trap, into a group bonding exercise centered around panic. One of my favorite puzzle and trap combos checks all three of the previously mentioned goals. The players enter a hallway/room, and when they interact with the “door” on the other end, the room becomes completely sealed and starts to fill with water. A number appears on the fake door, I usually pick 15, as well as a panel with a random assortment of knobs, levers, switches, and buttons. Everything should be labeled in some way, I usually use colors, numbers, shapes, and symbols just so that players have a systematic way of interacting with everything. Once I finish explaining the situation to the players, I flip the hourglass and give them three rotations before the room fills up with water and they drown. Every time the players try a combination, the timer on the door gets reset. If the players do nothing and let the timer get to 0, the water drains and a hidden door reveals itself. Due to being able to physically see something that’s measuring the time until they die, the players immediately fall into panic as they scramble to find the right combination. Once all hope is lost, someone will utter, “Let’s just not do anything,” in defeat. They listen closely as I count down slowly, giving any of the players an opportunity to have a change of heart and try something else, but they rarely do. Once I get to 0 and explain how the water is draining, pure joy and celebration break out. If you use this puzzle, make sure you give your players a break after they escape. They will need it.
Dungeons and Dragons is more than just combat and talking to npc's, every aspect of the game can be used to add to the overall story of the game and world. I’ve written before about letting the players drive the story, and I’m not changing my mind on that, but there are plenty of tools that a DM can utilize to expand the world and help the players interact with it. Just be creative, let your mind explore all the possibilities, and don't forget that nothing is a bad idea. Except trying to pet these bears.