Mindtrap: A Mental Encounter

Recently, my players decided to rob the wealthiest noble family in a drow city. I didn’t see this coming, even though I should have. Of course I should have. It was money, dangled in front of PCs. What else would they have done?

Anyway, I’m running this drow city off the cuff. I have a map showing the strongholds of the noble families. I know the goals, styles and key members of these families. Everything else, I make up as needed. It’s a refreshing break from my habit of overpreparing. But it did mean that I needed an awesome security system on the fly. I mean, the drow don’t mess around. The wealthiest family’s treasure horde is going to be well-protected. Guards and pressure plates aren’t going to cut it. They need something awesome.

It also turns out that this wealthy family are talented psionists. This makes it clear what the defence should be: something that attacks the mind. A psionic dungeon.

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Power Sources in 5e

It’s strange running 4e and 5e campaigns at the same time. On the one hand, you can appreciate how elegant and streamlined 5e can be. On the other hand, you realise there is a lot of stuff – and I mean, a lot – that 4e does well. Stuff that adds to the game without adding to the complexity. Stuff that gets me thinking: could this be brought across?

One idea that I liked was each class having a power source. Fighters were different from Paladins because the former were martial and the latter, divine. It was a clear framework on how the characters tap into their powers. Martial characters train their bodies to superhuman levels. Divine characters invoke the powers of the gods. Psionic characters harness the power of the mind. And so forth. Compare that to 5e. How do characters tap into their powers? “Magic”.

I like having a framework. Magic is such a nebulous concept that rules and restrictions help. It explains why “magic” isn’t used to solve every problem or explain every phenomenon. And the more tight the framework, the more impressive it is when someone becomes powerful within it. Dumbledore is less impressive when you realise he can make up the rules as he goes.

Now, this power source concept is not perfect. The biggest issue with 4e’s take on it was that the power sources were meaningless labels. There was no real distinction between the primal and the martial, apart from flavour. All classes were built the same. The psionic power source changed the way those classes worked, and I suppose divine characters could Channel Divinity. But in general, the power source was almost irrelevant.

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Character Concept: Blood Cleric

It was the worst case of ‘bad timing’ in history. Trintellia – goddess of flowers, birth and fertility – had watched over the land for millennia. Countless beings had worshipped her over the generations. Millions were indoctrinated into her churches.

It was rotten luck that Sabore received her blessing the exact moment she was slain. He felt the goddess’ light and beauty pour into him. He felt her anguish as the demon prince’s darkblade pierced her flesh. He felt the source of everything good and pure die, even as her last light permeated his essence.

Sabore wields divine powers, but they are corrupted by Trintellia’s murder. The goddess’ blood washed over his soul, leaving its mark. His hands carry stains that no scrubbing can remove. He had hoped to be a source of light; instead, his magic leaves people cowering in fear. He is a priest like all others – merely alone with the knowledge that his goddess’ death will never leave him.


Imagine a cleric with all the usual abilities, only his spells resemble blood magic. Such a character would be a treasure to roleplay, torn between the power to do good and the appearance of a villain. It would be a crime to describe his spells like normal cleric spells. How would you make a blood cleric’s magic stand out?

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Maths Puzzles

In talking about puzzles, I haven’t mentioned maths puzzles yet. Which is a shame, so I’m rectifying that now. Why are maths puzzles good? Two reasons: one relating to the players, one relating to the campaign.

RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons may be enjoying their moment in the sun, but they aren’t quite mainstream. They are geeky activities that are mostly enjoyed by geeky people. Each group is different but I’d wager that most groups have someone with experience in mathematics.

That’s relating to your players – I’m making the bold assertion that people who like one geeky thing have good odds of liking another. Now for the in-game justification.

Riddles aren’t like passwords. Usually they can be solved by anyone. Some are harder than others but the word that opens the magic door can be deduced from clues. Why wouldn’t the mad wizard use a random sequence of letters and numbers? Or, if they want the word to be easy to remember (because wizards have poor memories??) why do they have a plaque saying that it’s those things that have four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening?

(Answer: a mutant hydra that regrows legs instead of heads that gets two legs cut off and one of them is cauterised. Obviously).

The hand-waving I do for this question is that, well, that’s simply the way magic works. For whatever reason, a spell that securely locks a door works best when it is guessable. I’ve also included some wizard lairs that were tests – if and only if you were smart and strong enough to get through the puzzles and monsters were you worthy of an audience. But some riddles are meant to exclude intruders, even the worthy ones. So I bake it into the rules of magic as a weird quirk. If you have a different explanation for why wizards make their passwords solvable, I’d love to hear it.

Which brings me back to mathematics. Language is universal. Specific languages differ, but any mortal can speak any mortal language. Many settings have Common but you can’t assume intruders won’t speak Elvish or whatever. Mathematics, though – beyond basic arithmetic, mathematics is the domain of civilised races. Kobolds that trade with Dwarves might speak and read their language but, as simple tribal folk, they won’t get much practice applying mathematical skills to problems.

Players of my Trutea campaign, skip the following paragraph. It contains minor spoilers.

In a current game, an NPC found himself trapped in a mine filled with enemies. These enemies included kobolds and beings incapable of speech. To protect himself, he locked himself in a room and sealed the door with riddle-magic. But what riddle? Most kobolds are uneducated but they aren’t stupid. In any given clan, there’s probably a few who can read all the popular languages. But how many know any mathematics?

In this case, the maths-based riddle serves as a filter. If you can crack it, you probably aren’t a kobold. In which case, great, come on in. Any civilised person is more likely to be rescue than a typical low-level monster NPC.

This is the benefit of maths-based puzzles – they exclude savages and all civilised folk. The difficulty of the puzzle can adjust depending on your definition of ‘savages’.

Here are some maths puzzles I have shamelessly stolen. Google is great for these – better than other types of puzzles in my experience. These are easily solvable with high school maths. Feel free to adjust/substitute depending on the proportion of engineers/programmers in your group.

Simultaneous Equations

Straight up, unashamed mathematics. The PCs enter a room to find jars labelled zero through six. On the wall is etched:


The PCs have to move/destroy/look inside jars 1 and 2.

What’s next in the sequence?

1              11           21           1211

The sequence is generated by counting the quantities of numbers in the previous entry. In other words, the first entry has one 1, so the next is 11. Since that has two 1s, the next is 21. So the answer is 111221 (one 1, one 2, two 1s). An alternative question would be: what is the first entry in this sequence with a 3? The answer is the next entry: 312211.

Interesting Factorising

Yeah, it can be a thing. For example (again, Trutea players, look away):

What are two numbers that multiply to give 10,000 where neither has a zero?

A bit of thought shows that 10,000 = 10^4 = (2×5)^4 = 2^4 x 5^4. Neither 2^4 (16) nor 5^4 (625) have zero, so there’s the answer. Will your players get that? Maybe. Will a kobold or goblin? Unlikely.


You can leave these questions as you find them or give them a more fantasy feel. But really, mathematics exists in your world. I’m sure wizards use it for their spells (though that depends on the setting and your DM). Rogues might know enough probability for gambling. Other characters might find other uses for it.

One final question to get your juices flowing. I’m assuming that townsfolk know some maths but kobolds don’t. Both halves of that assumption could be wrong. But here’s a question: do angels and demons know maths? Are they powerful and knowledgeable, or is mathematics a mortal concern and thus beneath them? Maybe they are genius mathematicians; maybe they struggle beyond basic arithmetic. Who knows? But the answer could be relevant to your campaign.