Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Steal This: Deathgate Puzzle Room

One of the things I'm trying to do with this blog is to share fun "bits" and "tricks" from my own games.  Along those lines, here's a "puzzle room" from my Skull Mountaing mega-dungeon campaign that worked particularly well...much to the horror of my players.  Please, steal it, and see how your intrepid players fare.

The Deathgate Puzzle Room

Like many of my favorite dungeon "bits," the Deathgate Puzzle Room is completely harmless - as long as the PCs leave it alone.  And, really, they should.  I mean, come on, it's so obviously a trap.  It basically screams "don't mess with me, I'm f**king dangerous!"  And yet, it is irresistible to players.  And once it is messed with, the clock starts ticking, and soon it will be too late...

You Will Need:

To run this encounter right, you will need (1) a copy of the handouts, below, to give your players; and (2) an egg-timer, preferably one that ticks loudly and ominously.

Entering the Room

The setup is simple.  The PCs enter a large, stone room.  Inside, arrayed along the far wall, are seven heavy stone doors, with no handles.  And in the center of the room on a dais, is a large metal cube. 

"A giant metal Hellraiser box?  Gee, who would ever mess with that?"

It's freaky looking, about as tall as a man standing, sitting atop a gruesomely stained 3-step dais.  Bones, bits of debris, and several fresh bodies surround it.  Something is obviously wrong with the bodies - they all seem to be missing at least one arm.  Missing as in, "gruesomely sliced off at the shoulder."  No sign of any of the missing arms.

The Letters on the Cube
Looking closer at the cube, you can see that the sides are actually covered with metal plates, 16 on each side.  Each plate has a single letter carved into it.  And each plate is affixed to the cube with a hinge.  Obviously, you can swing each metal plate open, to reveal something underneath.

At first glance, the letters on the box appear to be gibberish. Here is how they are arrayed on each side.

South Side
(facing entrance): 

West Side:

North Side
(facing 7 doors):

East Side:
However, if one starts reading on the left (west) side of the cube, and continuing all the way around the cube, a classic riddle is revealed:

"It is too much for one,
two it is meant for, but no longer exists
if two become more."

"What's in the Box?  Oh, God, What's in the Box?"

The room is completely safe...until the moment that one of the PCs tries to flip open any of the cube's metal plates. Then, a loud metallic "click" reverberates through the cube, the floor, and the walls. 

Anyone who declares - within 5 seconds real time - that they are fleeing back out the door may make a Dexterity check or saving throw (DC left to the vagaries of the DM's cruelty) to escape the room.  After that, a sheet of solid iron falls and blocks the entrance, sealing everyone in the room.  And the box begins a loud, steady ticking.

Psst - Hey DMs:  This is where you pull the egg timer out from behind your screen, set it to 5 minutes, and plunk it down in front of the players.  Sure, their PCs might not know exactly how long they have, but go ahead and let the players see how much time is left anyway.  It's way more fun to watch them panic as the counter ticks down to zero.

So, what's under that metal plate our heroes flipped open, anyway?  Just a dark, nasty smelling hole.  Big enough, just barely, to put your arm into it.  And down below, at the end, is a metal handle you can (with effort) turn.   

Oh, and there's clearly some sort of sharp blade in that hole - perfectly set up to chop off anything (like an arm) you might be stupid enough to put in. 
"A Farewell to Arms"

Solving the puzzle, and deactivating the trap, is relatively simple.  The answer to the riddle is the word "S-E-C-R-E-T."  The PCs must spell out that word by opening any of the panels with the correct letters, reaching into the hole, and turning (with some effort) the handles until they click.  Once they spell out the password, they're safe!  Easy enough, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Make a mistake?  Pull a wrong lever, or the right lever in the wrong order?  Well, then the blade snaps your arm off at the shoulder.  Generous DMs can mete out this damage in terms of hit points, allow a saving throw, or allow the player some other kind of check to avoid losing an arm.  Me, I just snapper-snacked that sucker off.  Depending on your preferred edition of D&D, feel free to require a system shock roll, Fortitude save, etc. to survive losing an arm, or at least remain conscious.

There is no easy way to tell which handles are trapped and which are not.  After all, the puzzle is solved by pulling the right levers IN THE RIGHT ORDER - so even levers marked with correct letters can (and will) snap off an arm if pulled in the wrong order.  The severed arms?  They drop down a chute into the center of the cube, lost forever.

If the players solve the puzzle, the metal cube stops ticking, and the doorway behind them opens.  If you're feeling generous, maybe a secret door leading to some treasure room also opens.

Five minutes after the PCs are sealed in, unless they solve the puzzle, your egg timer goes off.  And the cube, floor, and walls rumble again.  At this point, the first of the seven doors on the far side of the wall slowly grinds open...

My own map of the Deathgate Puzzle, from Skull Mountain.
And a monster (probably) comes out.  I say "probably" here because you probably don't want to put a monster behind each door.  Here's the lineup I used in my game...

Door #1 - 13 hungry zombies or ghouls.

Door #2 - The rotten, severed head of a giant, the size of a large boulder.  All shriveled, grey flesh, empty rotting sockets.  It rolls about, crushing and biting foes.  Of course, it cannot attack anyone who climbs on top of the cube.

Door #3 - Used to be skeletons, but smashed apart by other adventurers long ago.

Door #4 - A desiccated, long-dead giant spider, hanging in dusty cobwebs, which starved long ago.

Door #5 - A hungry pudding or jelly of your choice.

Door #6 - 12 clay warriors, life-sized, in styled eastern mail and fluted helms.  When they walk, the sound is like cracking pottery.

Door #7 - A mechanical monstrosity, the Wizard-Head Golem.  Iron clockwork legs, a great glass drum filled with bubbling red liquid and a dozen, silently howling bearded heads.  Its right arm is a set of iron pincers, and its left is a buzzing circular saw.

Reset the Clock - Because the Cube Starts Ticking Again...
As soon as a door opens, the cube begins loudly ticking again!  Now, the PCs must continue trying to solve the puzzle while contending with whatever monster (or monsters) they have released. 
The process continues with a new monster being released every 5 minutes.  If you are feeling generous, once a monster is released (and you're involved in combat rounds) you can set the clock for 10 minutes instead, to account for all the various rolling and combat that must be handled.  But, most importantly, KEEP THE EGG TIMER ON THE TABLE, AND TICKING DOWN TO THE NEXT DOOR OPENING.

Other Ways to Overcome the Deathgate

Even if the players cannot solve the riddle, they can still get past the Deathgate Puzzle.  A few ways include...
  • Behind each stone door that opens, in addition to the monster (or monster remains), is a small tunnel ending in a heavy wooden door that (with a few minutes of effort and some luck) can be picked or broken down.
  • I also put a few secret doors leading off from the room - mainly to allow monsters to pass through the room without triggering the trap.
  • Once all seven doors open, after about 10 minutes, the trap resets and the entrance opens.
Why Is This Fun?

The Deathgate combines some of my favorite elements to include in dungeon design.  A riddle that tests the player's (not the characters') skill and ingenuity.  An evolving tactical situation that rewards creative thinking.  A problem that is difficult, if not impossible, to resolve through straightforward combat - but still has multiple solutions.  And, of course, a clock ticking down to certain doom.

Epilogue:  The Deathgate Puzzle Room in Play

The Deathgate Puzzle Room was a big hit in my Skull Mountain "cloud" megadungeon campaign.  At least three separate groups of PCs stumbled across it in search for a hidden treasure room ("The Chamber of Antiquities") referenced in various maps and other clues they had found.  None of the groups actually managed to "solve" the puzzle by spelling out the answer ("S-E-C-R-E-T"), but they each managed to overcome it in different ways, either by finding a secret door, or hacking down a door at the end of one of the "monster chutes" while being assailed from behind.  A lot of limbs were lost to the blades in the cube.  And a lot of PCs died screaming, as they were dragged from atop the cube by the horde of monsters they had released.

Skull Mountain Level One - The Deathgate is near the NW corner.
I hope you enjoy this nasty little room.  If you have any questions about how it works, put your question in the comments below and I'll do my best to answer.  And stay tuned, because I'll be posting about a dozen more little "trick rooms" you can drop into your own favorite dungeon over the next few weeks.

- Balthazar


  1. You monster! This puzzle was frustratingly fun. As players, we really thought we had it figured out several times, but then ... chop. Glad you finally revealed the answer to the riddle. :)