Welcome to the Dungeons! – Riddle Me This
We’ve had some traps in our dungeons, we’ve got monsters wandering around and patrolling, but what about puzzles. It’s fairly iconic as we get in Lord of the Rings Gandalf puzzling out which direction to go in the Mines of Moria, and also sitting outside of the mines trying to figure out how to get in. In other stories, people have to figure out a sphinxes riddle or say the magic word so that the door to the treasures get unlocked.
So how can you start to add that into your Dungeons and Dragons game?
I do think it’s fun to use because you get more variety in your dungeon when using them. I also think that they can be tricky to use, so I have a few “rules” or suggestions when using puzzles in your dungeons.
1. Don’t Make it Block the Story
Puzzles are a tricky thing to do right, and the biggest issue with doing them right is that sometimes the players and the player characters get stuck on them. A simple color puzzle might seem easy to you based on the hints you were dropping earlier, but the players might have missed it completely. Now they need to get through the puzzle to face the boss of the dungeon, but now you’ve just spent two hours of them getting frustrated and you getting frustrated because they can’t figure out the puzzle. Now, if it was a room that they knew had cool treasure in it, but it was off to the side in the dungeon, they might try and get bored and finish the dungeon, but you didn’t block the story.
2. Don’t Make it Have a Single Solution
This one I’m borrowing from Nerdarchy and other places, but a good puzzle isn’t going to have a single solution. If you have a single solution and they can’t get it, again you’ve blocked the story and enjoyment for everyone in the game, including you. More so, it’s possible that your players are going to come up with a creative solution to the problem that you didn’t think of, and it might be a better one than yours, so let them go through and make that work. Nerdarchy has talked about how one of them doesn’t always have a solution at all to their puzzle. They’ll just make the puzzle and wait until they hear a solution that they like. Now that might be extreme for what you would want to do, but be open to other solutions.
3. Have Clues/Rolls For the Puzzle
Seems fairly obvious, but if you have an idea of what you want, come up with ideas of how you can lead the players to an answer. Come up with things that the characters can roll to find clues. Are they going to be able to discern what the first color is in a color puzzle based off of a really good arcana roll? However, don’t just give the answer. If they are just going to be rolling to find out that the answer to the color puzzle is that you push the colors in the order of ROYGBIV, there’s no need for that puzzle. But if you describe it as the first button is cracked slightly and if you investigate it, you might be able to see inside it to figure out what order that color button should be pushed, you could start giving them clues. Or even if you didn’t want to do that, you could make it an obvious reference back to something that they saw in a previous room that was supposed to be a clue so they could start puzzling it out the way you expected.
4. Put a Timer on it
This one might seem less obvious, but if the players are taking a long time figuring it out, give them a break by sending a Goblin or other patrol around that makes sense for your dungeon. This should just be one or two guys, but maybe while someone else is working on a roll or trying to rewire the puzzle so they can make it through, the rest are fighting. But give those moments that make it feel like the dungeon is a living and breathing thing. But beyond that also put a timer on it in your head how long they can be stuck at this. If it takes too long, there’s nothing wrong with a goblin who has figured it out, or the big bad of the dungeon even, opening it up, and coming out and attacking the players and short cutting it. But this means you don’t burn a whole session or more with your players being stuck.
5. A Wrong Answer Should Bring them Closer to the Right Answer
Going back to the color puzzle to explain what it is, say the players start out by pushing the green button, there should be something, probably a D6 of electrical damage to tell them that it was wrong, but when they push the red button first it shouldn’t give them any damage. So even if they have to piece together the order and don’t figure it out because of your awesome clues, they are still going to be getting closer and they only have to the potential of getting smashed with 20d6 damage total if they are really unlucky. But again, it might help them get closer to the right solution faster.
6. The Wrong Answer Should Have a Cost
To tie in with the previous one, the wrong answer should have a cost, no matter how big or how small. If there is a right answer, like with the ROYGBIV one that the players need to figure out, there should be a cost. However, the trap shouldn’t have a major cost, the person who created the puzzle likely wouldn’t want to actually kill themselves if they got it wrong. So a D6 of damage for a lower level party, that is pretty big, for a higher level party, it’s still using up some lower level resources that they might have wanted to save for the big bad.
Now, you can see how a few of these things might be hard to do at the same time. Only having one right solution might be the case for the ROYGBIV color puzzle, but that one you should set-up really easily so that the players with a tiny bit of experimentation can figure it out. And I’d really lean into doing everything else if the players don’t get it quickly. Send in a goblin who is wearing a red shirt and do that until they get it really obviously in there head that red might be important.
But having a puzzle is really about having fun, and letting the players figure something out more than the player characters. This is one time where meta gaming and table talking about what you as players are thinking is important. It’s going to make for more of a fun time than everyone thinking quietly or the person who is playing the 4 intelligence barbarian just sitting there twiddling there thumbs and not helping because there character is dumb, even if they are very smart.
Sometimes you will build the puzzle for the characters, but in that case, they should be extremely simple and should be something that you know that player knows. Maybe it’s for the player who has the Sword of 1000 Smites (or some other made up magic item), and they have to make the decision if they want to find what they hope is a better treasure or something about their long lost family member who went missing when they were ten, but lose the sword by sacrificing it. That’s less of a puzzle, though could be a worded as a puzzle, but the real game part there is for the player to decide what to do as their character versus figure out some riddle.
Have you used puzzles in your games? Have you ever made one that your players got stuck on?
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