It’s a way to short-circuit adventures before they really begin. Basically, it works like this: the PCs need to do a thing or the adventure stops. This can take all sorts of forms:
- The PCs must surrender to the “obviously” overpowering forces of the enemy.
- The PCs must solve the puzzle to get through to the next room.
- The PCs must put these clues together in just the right way to figure out where to go next.
- The PCs must put Tab A into Slot B (usually meaning bring a portable magic item to a fixed magic item, but it can be even worse when both items are portable).
But the absolute worst is: the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue with the adventure.
You see that last one ALL THE TIME and it annoys me every time I see it. To find the hidden enemy, the PCs must find a secret door. To secure the McGuffin you must solve the puzzle. Heck, to even start the adventure you must pass a lore or intimidation or whatever check just to even learn about the dungeon’s existence!
If the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue, what are you going to do when they fail?
And having three options isn’t enough. What if they entirely miss that one exists and flub the remaining two somehow? What will you do?
This is called the Garden of Eden trap because if Adam and Eve don’t eat the forbidden fruit, nothing changes; they stay in paradise and there’s no rest of the Bible.
Note that this isn’t the same as combat. Even if you get a TPK in combat, the adventure can continue; it just might be with different characters. But nobody wants to build entirely new characters just because the dice are ornery and nobody can pass a Lore check or something equally inane.
Secret doors and secret passages are cool, but they should be built with the idea that they are bonus material. If the PCs find the secret door, they should get extra loot. Or they offer a way around a nasty monster they’d have to fight otherwise. Or maybe they provide a safe space to rest and recuperate.
Ditto for puzzles. Either they can be solved by brute-force or simply going through every available option (taking the time to do so, of course), or they again offer access to bonus material: extra treasure, a sub-level of your dungeon, stuff like that.
If there is something the players must know so the adventure can continue (like, say, the actual location of the dungeon), then give it to them for free. If you want them to roll a die, then let them, and then tell them what they need to know regardless of how the roll came out. If they roll really well, you might also give them something extra (like that the dungeon is inhabited by lycanthropes or something equally useful). If they roll really poorly, tell them two things, one of which is true and the other of which is a lie.
But for the love of Pete, don’t force the players to succeed at a roll to continue or finish the adventure. If you do, you’d damned well better have more material for play that evening, because it won’t be the players’ fault if gaming ends early.