This will help you create better adventures…
I’m going to be so bold as to claim that there are only 14 types of challenges in TTRPGs. No more, no less. In this post I’ll explain what I mean, and provide you with a concrete list of these challenges to help you create better adventures with less effort.
What is the purpose of this?
As a game master our job is to come to each session with an interesting scenario filled with challenges for the players to overcome. But which ones should you prepare? And how do you make sure the adventure feels varied, interesting and different from the one you ran last week? That’s where this list of 14 challenges in TTRPGs come in. In my opinion these are the only challenges there are. Whatever obstacle or hindrance you might come to think of belongs in one of these 14 groups, and that is the whole point of this post. Because if you have a list of all possible challenges it’s so much easier for you to see what your adventure might me missing and exactly what to add to create a truly great session.
So to summarize; The purpose of condensing all possible obstacles and challenges down to a list is to establish a highly usable Box to work within, more on that below.
Why The Box is so important
If you’ve ever done any kind of creative work you know that working outside the Box is horrible, it’s exactly what you don’t want to be doing. You want a clear Box so that you know the boundaries of your task. Just imagine someone asking you to “Draw something cool” vs “Draw a cat with a hat and sunglasses“, which task do you think will be the hardest? The Box is an important creative tool, and condensing all possible OSR challenges and obstacles down to this list of 14 entries is an important step in establishing The Box.
With the full menu of challenges in front of us, it’s much easier to see if we’ve created a varied and interesting scenario that doesn’t lean to heavy into one specific challenge. We all know how easy it is to “season the adventure meal” with a bit too much combat and forget about all the other interesting things we can throw at the players.
The 14 challenges
After careful consideration and 20 years of game-mastering, I’ve condensed it all down to these 14 challenge types. This is it.
Each of these challenges can be solved in a myriad of ways, none of them are straightforward or “rail roady”, which is a critical element in any decent TTRPG challenge in my opinion. Further down on this page you will find more detailed examples of each of the 14 entries, as well as some comments.
- Hostile NPC: Aggressive and hostile characters standing in your way.
- Blockage: Physical barriers such as locked doors, stuck doors and collapsed tunnels.
- Environmental Hazard: Challenges posed by the natural environment; harsh weather, poisonous vapors or stalactites dropping from the ceiling.
- Trap: Deliberately constructed and often hidden dangers; pit traps, dart traps, or alarms.
- Puzzle or Riddle: Challenges requiring intellectual problem-solving and critical thinking.
- Disease or Curse: Situations involving the management or curing of illnesses or curses.
- Lost or Hidden Paths: Navigating hidden routes or finding your way back after becoming lost in the dark woods.
- Protect or Secure: Tasks where the challenge is to protect something or someone from various threats or securely deliver something or someone.
- Mystery: Scenarios that involve uncovering secrets, solving crimes, or piecing together clues.
- Survival: Situations where the primary objective is enduring resource scarcity and just surviving harsh conditions.
- Moral Challenges: Moral dilemmas and conflicts, presenting players with tough ethical choices and value-driven decisions.
- Magical Phenomenon: Encounters with unexplained or unusual magical events or environments, such as magical portals, doors with arcane locks or a magical dome blocking entrance to the dungeon.
- Cultural or Linguistic Barrier: Challenges arising from navigating and understanding different cultures or languages.
- Political Intrigue: Involves maneuvering through complex social hierarchies, diplomacy, and power structures.
You could of course argue that this list can be condensed even further, but I’ve tried that and In my opinion the gained conciseness is not enough compared to the loss of granularity . The purpose of all this is to help GMs create scenarios filled with varied and interesting challenges. And combining for example “Cultural or Linguistic Barrier“, “Political Intrigue” and “Mystery or Investigation” into “Intellectual challenges” just doesn’t do that.
1: Hostile NPCs
Without a doubt the most common challenge at all tables. It’s easy to throw a group of goblins at the player characters, or place a troll in the cave, guarding the treasure. However, the name of this challenge isn’t “Combat”, because combat is a means to solve a challenge, combat isn’t a challenge in itself. It’s named “Hostile NPCs” for a reason, to highlight the fact that as the GM you are free to place dangerous NPCs as part of the scenario you are preparing, but don’t force the players to fight them. You should always let the players decide how to interact with and handle the challenge presented to them.
- Goblin patrol guarding a tomb entrance: The entrance to the ancient tomb the party is tasked with investigating is guarded by a goblin patrol. Do they sneak past, negotiate, distract, or confront them?
- Ogre demanding a toll to cross the bridge: On route to their destination they come across a bridge that’s guarded by an ogre who demands payment to cross. Do they pay the toll, find another way across, negotiate, or prepare for combat?
- Corrupt town official impeding investigation: A local official, known for corruption, is hindering the party while investigating mysterious events. Do they gather evidence to expose the official, bribe them, seek help from other town authorities, or find an alternative way to continue their investigation without the official’s interference?
A tried and true challenge type. Locked, blocked or stuck doors are a staple in all TTRPGs and there is no need to change that, because they work.
- Locked door in an ancient dungeon: Deep within an ancient dungeon, the party encounters a locked door. Do they search for the key, attempt to pick the lock, or find an alternative route?
- Stuck door in an abandoned house: In an abandoned house rumored to hold secrets, a door is swollen shut. Do they force it open, use tools or magic to unstick it, or search for another entry?
- Frozen waterfall blocking cave entrance: A frozen waterfall conceals the entrance to a cave. Do they chip away at the ice, find a way to melt it, or look for another path around the waterfall?
3: Environmental hazard
Environmental hazards are different from traps, because they aren’t created with the intention to hurt someone, they are just there, they are neutral.
- Blizzard in the mountains: A fierce blizzard strikes while the party traverses a mountain pass. Do they seek shelter and wait it out, brave through the storm, or find an alternate route?
- Poisonous vapors in a dungeon: The party encounters a section of a dungeon filled with poisonous vapors. Do they find a way to purify the air, hold their breath and rush through, or search for a safer path?
- Falling stalactites in a cavern: In a large cavern, the party is threatened by unstable stalactites. Do they navigate cautiously to avoid disturbing them, use magic or tools to safely remove the hazard, or find a different route through the cavern?
Deliberately placed to hurt or stop someone or something. My best advice when running traps is to make them obvious. Let the player character spot them but don’t tell them how they work. Traps are best used as something to solve, rather than hidden and unavoidable damage.
- Pit trap: While exploring an ancient corridor, the party discovers a hidden pit trap. Do they find a way to safely disable it, construct a bridge over it, or search for a detour around the trap?
- Tripwire: The party encounters a tripwire in a bandit hideout, possibly triggering an alarm or a trap. Do they attempt to disarm it, carefully step over it, or find another entrance to the hideout?
- Magical alarm: Approaching a wizard’s vault, the party notices a magical alarm system. Do they try to dispel the magic, find a way to bypass the alarm without triggering it, or seek an alternative entry to the vault?
5: Puzzle or Riddle
Riddles are often debated in the TTRPG community, read my guide to using riddles in TTRPGs for more context and advice on how to make them work. Wether you like riddles or not, puzzle-like encounters are most often highly appreciated by the players, because they make them feel smart.
- Ancient script on a tomb door: The party finds a door in a tomb inscribed with an ancient script. Do they attempt to translate the script, seek out a scholar or magical aid to decipher it, or look for another way into the tomb?
- Mysterious locked chest in a noble’s house: A locked chest in a noble’s house presents a complex lock that seems more like a puzzle. Do they solve the puzzle to open the chest, try to pick the lock in a conventional way, or seek clues around the house to aid in solving it?
- Riddle from a mystical guardian: A mystical guardian blocks the party’s path, offering passage only if they solve its riddle. Do they attempt to answer the riddle, try to convince the guardian to let them pass without solving it, or search for another path to their destination?
6: Disease or Curse
It doesn’t always have to be a small village in the woods that’s plagued by a mysterious disease. It could also be the PCs that catch a horrible disease requiring them to seek aid from the evil hag. It’s a great challenge type that can add a lot of variety to the game. If you need inspiration, check out our list of 10 fantasy curses and how to break them
- Plague in a small village: The party arrives in a village stricken by a mysterious plague. Do they search for a cure, help tend to the sick, or investigate the source of the disease?
- Curse of eternal sleep in a royal family: A royal family is afflicted by a curse that puts them into an eternal sleep. Do they seek out a powerful mage, find a legendary antidote, or investigate who cast the curse and why?
- Lycanthropy affecting a party member: A party member is afflicted with lycanthropy. Do they seek a cure before the next full moon or use the condition to their advantage?
7: Lost or Hidden Paths
Finding secret doors in castles, hidden forest paths or caves behind waterfalls is always satisfying for the players.
- Secret passage in an old library: In an ancient library, the party learns of a secret passage rumored to lead to a hidden chamber. Do they search for the entrance, decipher clues in the old texts, or seek historical knowledge from a local expert?
- Disappearing trail in a mystical forest: While navigating a mystical forest, the party finds that the trail they were following has disappeared. Do they attempt to retrace their steps, use nature or magical skills to find the path, or explore in a new direction hoping to rediscover the trail?
- Lost in a mysterious forest: The party realizes they are lost in a dense, mysterious forest with paths that seem to shift and change. Do they climb a tree for a better view, use survival skills to navigate, or attempt to find a natural landmark to guide them back to a known path?
8: Protect or Secure
There are many things that could need protection, a sage performing a ritual, a chest full of coin being transported to the baron or a village from the invading orcs. “Secure” can also mean “Steal the documents from the captain’s cabin“. Interpret and use these challenge types creatively for best effect.
- Guarding a sage performing a ritual to close a demonic portal: The party must protect a sage performing a critical ritual to close a demonic portal. Do they create a defensive perimeter, use magic for protection, or strategically position themselves to counter any threats that emerge from the portal?
- Escorting a diplomat through hostile territory: The party must escort a diplomat through a region known for bandit attacks. Do they take a stealthy route, prepare for potential combat, or hire additional guards for protection?
- Securely delivering a high-risk prisoner: The party is responsible for transporting a high-risk prisoner to a fortified location for trial. Do they take the most direct route under heavy guard, devise clever decoys to mislead potential rescuers, or find an unconventional means of transportation to avoid detection?
Who doesn’t love a great murder mystery? Similar to riddles and puzzles, these type of challenges can sometimes feel weird in the sense that they challenge the player more than the character, so make sure you build in clues and hints that the character can attain via in world means.
- Disappearance of a local blacksmith: The village blacksmith has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Do the party search his workshop for clues, inquire with the villagers, or track potential suspects?
- Strange lights in the ancient ruins: Unusual lights have been seen emanating from ancient ruins at night. Do the party investigate the ruins directly, research the ruins’ history for clues, or observe the lights from a distance to gather more information?
- Series of thefts at a high-end bazaar: A series of clever thefts occur at a bustling bazaar. Do the party set up a discreet watch, talk to local merchants and shoppers for information, or create a ruse to lure out the thief?
Here I mean survival as in “Survival gaming”, finding food, water, shelter and withstanding harsh weather etc, not as in “You are attacked by three dragons, how do you survive?”.
- Crossing the Dry Wastes to reach the Claw Viper Temple: The party needs to traverse the perilous Dry Wastes, a desert with scarce water and only one known oasis. Do they try to find a magical means of travel like a flying carpet, prepare a well-supplied caravan with camels and handlers, or risk a direct journey through the harsh desert terrain?
- Stranded on a remote island after a shipwreck: Following a shipwreck, the party is stranded on a remote island. Do they scavenge the island for food and resources, work on building a raft to escape, or explore the island for a possible hidden or natural means of rescue?
- Securing a campsite in winter wilderness: While traveling through a harsh winter landscape, the party must secure a campsite for the night. Do they gather firewood and build a shelter, find a natural shelter like a cave, or push on through the cold in hopes of finding a better spot?
11: Moral Challenges
A challenge that’s sadly way to rare in most adventures. Moral dilemmas are a great way to add depth to any scenario. Clearing out a mine full of angry kobolds is very simplistic, but if you give the kobolds a fair reason for being in the mine, then you’ve changed it into a really interesting scenario.
- Choice to save villagers or pursue the villain: The party chases a villain who sets a fire in a village as a distraction. Do they stop to help the villagers and risk the villain escaping, or pursue the villain, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves?
- Decision to keep or return stolen treasure: After defeating a group of bandits, the party finds a cache of treasure stolen from nearby settlements. Do they return it to its rightful owners, keep it for themselves, or find a compromise like using it for a greater cause?
- Dilemma with a captured enemy sought by local NPCs: The party captures an enemy who has information valuable to their quest. Some local NPCs demand the enemy’s execution for past crimes. Do the party protect and interrogate the enemy, hand them over to the NPCs for justice, or negotiate a deal that satisfies both parties?
12: Magical Phenomenon
A common and beloved challenge, everything from fairy rings and unstable portals to magically locked doors and mysterious glowing runes fit into this one.
- Wild magic zone in a forest: The party enters a forest where magic is unpredictable due to a wild magic zone. Do they navigate through it with the risk of chaotic magical effects, find a way to temporarily suppress or control the wild magic, or seek an alternate route that avoids the area?
- Time loop in an ancient temple: Inside an ancient temple, the party finds themselves caught in a time loop. Do they search for the source of the loop to break it, use the loop to their advantage to solve puzzles or challenges, or try to leave the temple and escape the loop’s effects?
- Ghostly apparitions in an abandoned village: The party encounters ghostly apparitions in an abandoned village that seem to reenact past events. Do they attempt to communicate with the spirits, investigate the history of the village to find a resolution, or try to dispel the apparitions?
13: Cultural or Linguistic Barrier
Here’s a challenge that I feel isn’t used enough. Adding and using languages in your game is an effective way of making the world feel alive and realistic with very simple means. Meeting NPCs that you can’t speak with can lead to many interesting scenarios, and hiding treasure behind ancient scripts the PCs can’t read without the help of the local lore master or a book hidden deep in dungeon is a cool way to challenge the players.
- Negotiating with a tribe speaking an unknown language: The party needs to negotiate passage through a region controlled by a tribe, but the tribe speaks a language unknown to the party. Do they find a translator, try to communicate through gestures and basic words, or observe the tribe from afar to learn their language or customs?
- Deciphering ancient inscriptions in a forgotten temple: In a forgotten temple, the party finds crucial information inscribed in a long-lost language. Do they attempt to decipher it through context clues, seek out a scholar or magical means to translate it, or try to find visual clues in the temple that bypass the need for translation?
- Interacting with a city with strict social customs: The party enters a city with complex and strict social customs unfamiliar to them. Do they carefully observe and mimic the locals to blend in, openly ask for guidance on the customs, or try to avoid social interactions to prevent any cultural faux pas?
14: Political Intrigue
This can be anything from infiltrating a royal ball to solve the murder mystery, to negotiating with the baron to secure that soldiers are sent to defend the village from the invading orcs.
- Village council dispute over land rights: The party arrives in a village where there’s a heated dispute in the council over land rights. Do they mediate between the parties, investigate the legitimacy of the claims, or use the situation to gain favor with one side?
- Secret alliance negotiations: The party uncovers a plot about secret negotiations between their kingdom and a rival power. Do they attempt to uncover more details, intervene to prevent or ensure the alliance, or report the findings to their superiors or another interested party?
- City on the brink of rebellion: The party enters a city where tensions between the ruling class and the common folk are about to erupt into rebellion. Do they help the oppressed to incite a change, side with the rulers to maintain order, or try to find a diplomatic solution to ease the tensions?
Pro tip: Combine them for best effect
TTRPGs are all about creative problem solving, using a specific set of tools. So it goes without saying that more intricate and layered challenges means more interesting choices for the players, and also more fun for you as the game master.
So whenever you are designing an adventure, don’t forget to combine these 14 different challenges. Here are a few examples of golden combinations:
- “Hostile NPC” + “Environmental Hazard” – This makes for a much more interesting potential combat encounter, or a combat that can be avoided by using the hazardous environment against the enemy.
- “Disease or Curse”+ “Moral dilemma” – A human sacrifice is needed to break the curse, but who to sacrifice?
- “Blockage” + “Trap” – The locked and trapped door, olden but golden, a timeless classic.
- “Protect or Secure” + “Magical Phenomenon” – Fetch the MacGuffin for the ritual and then protect the sage while she performs the ritual to close the mysterious portal. Nothing new here, just a good example of the effect of combining challenge types.
Which type of challenge do you use most often?
Closing thought on these 14 challenges in TTRPGs
I hope that this list will help you create more varied and interesting scenarios, with less effort, because that’s the whole point.
So the next time you sit down to prepare for a session, look at this list and select 4-6 of these challenges and make sure they are all baked into the adventure. Don’t just fall back to “Combat”, there are so many more interesting challenges to throw at your players, and your games will be infinitely more fun for everyone at the table if they contain a mixture of at least 5 of the challenge types established here. For easy reference, I’ve listed them once again below:
- Hostile NPC
- Environmental Hazard
- Puzzle or Riddle
- Disease or Curse
- Lost or Hidden Paths
- Protect or Secure
- Moral Challenges
- Magical Phenomenon
- Cultural or Linguistic Barrier
- Political Intrigue
Good luck with your prep!
If you found this post and list of challenges in TTRPGs useful, then don’t miss our guide: “How to improvise as a DM” and of course, our game, Adventurous.