Review: The Game Master’s Book of Traps, Puzzles and Dungeons (5e)

Product: The Game Master’s Book of Traps, Puzzles and Dungeons (Print) (PDF)
Author: Jeff Ashworth
Publisher: Jeff Ashworth
System: 5e, but can be used for inspiration in almost any system
Summary: The Game Master’s Book of Traps, Puzzles and Dungeons provides GMs with endless options for populating their adventures with challenging riddles, puzzles, spiked pits, Rube Goldberg-style deathtraps and much more – everything they need to push player character to their limit and bring new levels of excitement (and anxiety) to their game play.
Whether part of a pre-planned adventure or a random encounter, these brain teasers, puzzles and traps will make every dungeon crawl, fortress break-in, or temple sacking that much more fun. GMs will find more than 60 challenging puzzles, 60 unique traps and 50 modular dungeon chambers, each with its own set of possible encounters, meaning GMs can generate a fully-functional (or completely dilapidated) dungeon in a few rolls of a dice.
Snap Judgement for Busy Wyverns: Traps are hard to come up with on your own. It’s even hard to figure out how to make them hidden, but also be disarmed. Forget trying and failing to come up with a good idea, or just copying the same trap you saw in an adventure movie over and over – this book has all you’ll ever need.

What is it?
We’ve covered Jeff Ashworth before – with his book on Random Encounters. We’re a big fan of his book of Random NPCs too – you should check it out. This is another in the series and follows the same pattern – hardbound but at a reasonable price, a foreword from some of the best GM minds around, 3 one-shot adventures (2 written by guest authors, one by Ashworth), and then dozens of pages of traps, puzzles, dungeon chambers and random tables – 250 pages total. It’s a great value for what you pay, just $23 US MSRP. The PDF is even less. Peruse it, grab a trap or puzzle, toss it in your game – or run a one-shot straight from here on an off night.

What makes it good? Are there downsides?
When we saw this book, we were really eager to check it out. In our opinion, traps and puzzles are maybe the hardest thing to pull off – in a fun way – in many RPGs, and 5e in particular. We all want our traps and puzzles to feel like the ones in Indiana Jones – the gold standard for traps right? The suspense, even when you know it’s there, or the surprise when it springs out of nowhere. The tension and the fear. But instead, in 5e, we get the tedious “roll to detect traps” and then if failed – instant pain or death…or if successful, “roll to disarm” and then we all just move on. What was the fun in that? And don’t get me started on Passive Perception vs. Active Investigation…it’s just too fiddly to be fun. The dungeon devolves into rolling for traps at every door, hallway, crossroads…
We always use a “click” rule, where if a trap is triggered the player gets a very quick chance to react – and if that reaction is helpful, they gain advantage on the save. That makes things a little more exciting, but it still never feels like Indiana diving through whirling blades. The penitent man will pass indeed.

So we were hopeful that Ashworth and his devious mind would be able to come up with exciting, thrilling and tricky traps to inspire GMs and vex players. Did he succeed? Well…let’s first start with the one-shot adventures and our impression of them.

The Spire and the Scab – by Jasmine Bhullar
We know a little bit about Ms. Bhullar, but are not super familiar with her work. She does seem to be a well respected GM, and her talent does show in this mini-adventure. There’s a good setup, easy to drop into any campaign and extensive GM notes on how best to run it. The puzzle within looks pretty tough – be prepared for some player frustration. There’s also a bit of corny humor in here…it was a little jarring for me, but many groups might get plenty of chuckles. 7/10

Pick of the Litter – Jeff Ashworth
This is a wild and wildly difficult adventure, and definitely leans into the old-school philosophy of deadly traps with a singular solution. Fortunately, it’s wrapped in a premise of a planar contest where permanent death isn’t possible – you just respawn back at the beginning. Sort of a All You Need is Kill / Edge of Tomorrow experience, but where scoring is based on how few deaths your team takes. This may or may not be to your players’ liking, and understandably so. But if they really want a nasty trap and riddle challenge one night….this is the one to run. 8/10 unless your party isn’t prepared…

Skhalhammer Manor – Three Black Halflings
This is a pretty weird one with a “Dream Dragon” and is fairly high-concept. It’s…interesting. The puzzles seem tough, and there’s lots of clues – but we feel like, at some point, we’d just have to start handing them out. Once the riddle is solved, it’s into a hedge maze and the mechanics for that look…infuriating, for the players. There’s survival checks to progress through the maze, but also psychic damage for failure. There’s wisdom saves for brain fog, or the affected creature ends up teleporting around the maze. There’s lots of powerful treasure, but no guarantee anyone would find them. I’m just not sure about this one – it seems torturous for the players, but maybe that’s the point? 4/10 – it may just not be for me.

OK let’s talk traps. This books has 4 kinds – Painful, Deadly, Disruptive (meant to slow PCs down) and Complex (bizarre Rube Goldberg creations). Some traps have comic-books style illustrations, and they are fantastic – we just loved them. Each trap has 4 attributes: Trigger & Flavor, Result, Investigating and Disarming. High marks for these breakdowns – they make dropping a trap in your game and running it extremely easy compared to many traps you might find in other resources. I would have liked to have seen variable DCs for investigating – most are all-or-nothing. If you miss the DC, you just don’t get a clue. No distinction between Perception and Investigation in many cases either, so that’s unfortunate. All that said though – these are very, very creative and innovative traps. They would absolutely be impressive and terrifying to players. They are guaranteed to cause problems, so if your players complain about things being too easy – get this book and let loose.

Puzzles may be even tougher to pull off than traps. At least with traps, there’s no expectation that the player, and not the character, will be the one trying to detect and disarm it. But with a puzzle, there’s the expectation that the players will be solving the riddle, and not the characters. Suddenly, no one is playing a role anymore. The “dumb” barbarian might solve it because the player is a riddlesmith. The hight-INT wizard might struggle to even understand the gist of the puzzle. Hopefully GMs out there are willing to give hints on INT checks, otherwise it could be a world of pain for players that just aren’t big on puzzles and riddles.

This book has 3 kinds – Rhymes&Riddles, Ciphers, and Gateway Puzzles. Each Rhyme or Riddle has the text of the riddle, the answer, and a short example scenario. That’s pretty helpful. To Ashworth’s credit, he suggests giving hints for INT checks. The Ciphers section is pretty short, just gives a few examples of block ciphers and other simple encryption methods for players to decode. Nothing Enigma Machine level here, just enough for players to feel accomplished when they crack it. Because remember, you want them to crack these, otherwise you’re going to have a very long, frustrating session ahead of you. The Gateway Puzzles are essentially elaborate door locks – either to keep PCs out of a room, or to keep them in. Somewhere between traps and riddles, they are often pretty tough to figure out with minimal hints. We’ll be honest – we don’t love these, but we’re not big fans of escape rooms either. These could be fun once in a while, but a puzzle dungeon full of these would frustrate us to no end.

Dungeon Rooms
Fifty dungeon rooms round out the offerings here, and wow – they are NASTY. Any one of them could lead to TPKs or massive amounts of frustration. Do not take these lightly. Almost all of these have entrance/exits so they can be plopped anywhere you like in your mad wizard’s dungeon. Use sparingly. But hey, if you haven’t prepped much for the session, and need to fill some time – these will do the trick, and then some.

System Portability
Given the madness around the OGL changes from Wizards of the Coast, we’d be remiss not to start discussing using these “5e compatible” resources in other systems. While this book has a lot of DCs and 5e specific terminology for the traps….puzzles, riddles, cyphers and dungeon rooms are all easily ported into just about any game you can think of. As for the traps, that might take a little bit of conversion for detection/disarmament and damage – but an experienced GM could probably do that on the fly in whatever system they’re working in. We’d consider this resource about as system neutral as you can get without actually being system neutral.

Final Thoughts
I don’t think this book does a whole lot to bring us closer to that ideal paragon of “Indiana Jones at the table” for traps – but at least the traps contained within are more interesting and often amusing than your standard fare. A truly devious mind came up with these. It’s great to have a bunch of riddles and weird dungeon rooms in one place, since yes – sometimes – we all need to pad out the session a little bit with something that engages the players. If you have a few that love puzzles – then that’s a worthwhile tool. It’s certainly better than another random encounter with mooky monsters that don’t advance the story. And random encounters don’t give the GM a break – having the players team up to work out a riddle or a cipher lets the GM breathe and maybe, just maybe, prep out a little more in real time to end the session with a bang.

Recommend or Not?
This is the first resource we’ve reviewed here where we don’t feel good about a solid “Recommend” – and the simple reason is that if really tough traps and dungeon rooms don’t fit your game, this is not going to find much use for you. There’s just not enough here. The 3 one-shot adventures are nice but not worth the full price of the book. They – purposely – one-trick ponies to put the characters in a nasty situation to see if they can work their way out. And that’s fine – but that’s not for every group either.

However. If your game is a deadly one, if your players are grizzled RPG vets that don’t mind losing a character to a blade they never saw coming, or if they really want to run a short meat-grinder campaign wherein they have to solve a mad wizard’s puzzle dungeon (and you’ve already run them through White Plume Mountain) – well here you go. This book is a full-throated Recommend.

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