I improvised a very weird puzzle the other night, which my players absolutely loved even though it creeped them out and it took them 90 minutes to complete. They barely survived it, which is astonishing as it should be quite easy to brute-force your way through… The challenge is in figuring out how it works and adapting your behaviour accordingly.
Context: the PCs need a key item to solve another puzzle. I used the Door of Shadows, which they need what is essentially a flashlight to solve. That flashlight is hidden in the next room.
In that room: eight sarcophagi line the walls, and a ninth at the far end. I had an urn full of wooden swords by the door, which the party would have needed if they'd succumbed to the poison they'd been fed before dropping into this room – but that didn't happen.
If you enter the room, you step on a pressure plate that activates a mechanism, causing the lids of the eight sarcophagi to open. The next step taken, eight skeletons sit up. The next step, they get out of their coffins. Next step, they pick up swords. Next step, they take a step toward you.
From this point, for every step anyone in the party takes, the skeletons all take a step as well. If the skeletons end up close to a party member, then the next step someone takes results in an attack against that party member (+4 to hit, 1d8+2 damage).
It can be very easy to deal with, except that for every step someone takes, every skeleton in proximity to a person takes a swing. This means that when the paladin was standing in the midst of four skeletons, and the warlock on her turn walked off to check out something else five steps away, the paladin took 20 attacks.
The door puzzle key (flashlight) is inside the ninth sarcophagus that didn't open. The lid to this sarcophagus is heavy, requiring a DC 13 Strength check to open. If a PC reaches it and opens it (as did the Warlock, who cleverly Misty Stepped her way past the skeletons, which did not trigger their movement), a mummy reaches out, attempts to grapple the PC (+2 contested strength roll), and pulls them into the sarcophagus. The lid closes, and in the next round, if the player doesn't escape, gas that causes the Poisoned condition (DC 13 CON save) seeps out into the coffin. Each subsequent round in the gas causes more debilitating conditions – I used levels of exhaustion.
If the PCs destroy a skeleton, they'll find that bits of the skeleton (skull, sword, arm, all depending on how you describe its destruction) remain suspended in the air. This is a Clue, but is also liable to make your players very afraid, thinking that the skeletons are indestructible and are still a danger.
In fact, the skeletons aren't even animated (which my paladin finally discovered by using Divine Sense looking for "other undead" — when I told him there were no undead anywhere, even in this room, he blanched. He found it creepier to realize that these skeletons were just puppets). They are being held up by thin strings dangling from the ceiling, which a good (DC 18) Perception check would reveal. Similarly, a decent Insight check might give the party a clue when a downed skeleton's sword is dangling in the air – my players failed all of these pretty badly, so they weren't clued in for quite a long time.
The mummy is just made of sticks and padding, wrapped in bandages. However, if you are stuck inside the sarcophagus with it, it's hard to find this out — being in such tight quarters makes it hard to attack the mummy (disadvantage), and the poison makes it more difficult to escape the grapple and to open the lid. The puzzle key object is hidden inside the mummy's wrappings.
There are all kinds of ways to deal with this situation. So long as you don't take any steps, the skeletons don't move, so time can be taken for Perception and Investigation checks if the players think to do so. The skeletons are weak (12 AC, 14 HP), so you could get through it nearly unscathed with good positioning and careful movement. The ceiling, if investigated, is covered in a dense grid of tracks, which are how the strings are moved. Those tracks do not extend to the next room, so the players could just leave the room and attack the skeletons at a distance. If they notice the strings, they could target them and cut down the skeletons. My players did, eventually, disable the mechanism that controls the skeletons, when the warlock cast Cone of Cold at the ceiling and jammed the hidden gears – but that didn't happen until there was just one skeleton standing, the warlock was poisoned and exhausted, the paladin was injured, and the monk had just 7 HP left.
If they players don't clue in, though, it can be very deadly and very entertaining. My players are level 10 – eight skeletons should cause them no trouble at all. I expected this to take 20 minutes. It took 90, and the players were deeply engaged (and terrified!) the whole way through.
- Help with starting initiative and enemy initiative
- “What can go wrong?” Everything. Everything can always go wrong.
- Simple “puzzle” made difficult
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Skeleton puppetry – a puzzle/encounter adaptable to any level" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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