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Designed by: Christian Toft Madsen
Puzzles are criminally underused in nearly every D&D dungeon I’ve come across. I don’t expect Portal-level puzzle designs in every dungeon but logic puzzles, riddles, and environmental traps offer a welcome change to the standard Kill, Loot, Rest, Repeat cycle of dungeon crawling.
On the other end of the scale is “The Secrets of the Twisting Colossus,” a 5th level adventure that features a deathtrap dungeon design of over a dozen individual trap rooms. Puzzles range from exciting environmental dangers to complex block and matching puzzles, culminating in a memorable boss fight that pits the PCs in a literal science experiment.
The adventure is divided into four chapters. The first chapter provides an introduction and background, including the villainous mad alchemist Paricalus and his recent lair in the titular Twisting Colossus, an alien prison originally from the Plane of Mechanus. Multiple adventure hooks are provided to get the PCs to travel to the town of Woolhope, which resides near the clockwork tower.
Chapter two provides brief details on the town of Woolhope, which serves its mundane function of standard rest stop before the dungeon. The PCs can learn about strange goings-on and some missing folks, but either way they’ll need to make their way to the underground entrance and begin the gauntlet of traps known as the Maze.
At 18 pages the maze takes up the sizable bulk of the adventure. It’s spread out over 10 outer chambers and four inner chambers. Each chamber includes a near-deadly puzzle room that PCs need to solve. Success opens a door to the next outer chamber, while failure opens the door to an inner chamber, giving them more puzzle chances without throwing up major road blocks.
It’s a clever dungeon design built on top of a very complex dungeon. The outer chambers rotate upon puzzle failure, which presents PCs with different puzzles they might fare better on. Thankfully it’s all represented by both side-view and top down maps for DMs, as well as interesting black and white 3D photos of the puzzle rooms, presenting them like an old-school adventure game.
Even with these excellent visual aides some of the puzzles were complicated and confusing, causing me to re-reread several times (and I’m still unsure on a few of them). One involves a pair of corridors, pressure plates, and a madness-inducing mirror that just sounds annoying, while it seems far too easy to metagame the ones that are supposed to separate PCs into multiple chambers.
Others I understood instantly and quickly saw the appeal, like a rotating electrified fence that forced PCs to constantly Dash to stay ahead of it. Naturally they have to stop and pull four levers to solve the puzzle. Another has a ceiling crashing down on top of a pool of water while tentacles grab them from below. Many of these puzzles reminded me more of the Saw films than Portal with the burning, choking, and mental exhaustion.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing but be aware these puzzles are quite punishing even if PCs figure everything out.
A safe haven exists toward the back of the maze where the Modrons reside. I really love the use of Modrons here as neutral custodians but also potential allies. The Modrons have their own agenda in trying to open up a portal back to their plane, and smart PCs could enlist their aid to overthrowing Paricalus.
In the final chapter the PCs have survived to the end, hopefully without too much failure. Their reward is being unceremoniously shrunk and teleported into Paricalus’ alchemy equipment as they’re subjected to the same process through which he was testing them with each puzzle chamber. It’s a neat way to tie the theme together and present the PCs with one final deathtrap challenge before the final boss battle.
I was very impressed with the original construction of the entire dungeon. The rotating gear rooms and chambers are clearly explained and laid out, and each room is like walking into a new Zelda shrine in Breath of the Wild (or insert your favorite puzzle game). On the other hand the adventure leans so hard into puzzles that I wish we actually had a bit more combat – which I’ve rarely if ever had to yearn for in a D&D adventure!
Role-playing is also minimized. Once they enter the dungeon, it’s pretty much just the modrons (which could be wholly ignored or missed) until the final boss. It would have been nice to have at least one of the puzzles involve a combat trial or a persuasion or CHA check to allow different character builds a chance to shine.
“The Secrets of the Twisting Colossus” is a unique and interesting puzzle-filled excursion, provided your PCs will rise to the challenge of a gauntlet of deathtraps.
- Over a dozen intriguing, complex trap rooms with helpful maps and visual aids.
- The trap room maze is cleverly non-linear, including rotating rooms and multiple doors and paths.
- Memorable climax involving shrunken heroes in alchemy beakers and a mad scientist.
- Modrons could make for some fun, friendly NPCs, and Paricalus is a classic Mad Mage-style taunting villain.
- Some of the puzzles and traps are excessively complex and very punishing.
- Nearly the entire dungeon is a series of puzzles, with almost no combat and very little roleplaying.
The Verdict: If you’re looking for a truly puzzling deathtrap dungeon that invokes the Portal Games, the Saw movies, and D&D’s own Tomb of Horrors, check out the uniquely rotating puzzle rooms within “The Secrets of the Twisting Colossus.”
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