Resources: Puzzles

Ever played a tabletop RPG where a puzzle has broken the game? I’m happy to say that it’s never happened at my table. My puzzles have stumped players, bamboozled them, frustrated them, but they’ve always kept the game moving.

Puzzles are fantastic when done right. They give the players a chance to shine. Think about it – the characters kill the goblins but the players crack the code. This makes them a brilliant change of pace from combat while being completely different from roleplaying scenes.

Unfortunately, a lot of puzzles are terrible. But never fear: I’ve included some awesome ones below for you to use. Feel free to skip the next part but if you do, you’ll be missing some neat tips on how to design great puzzles of your own. All you need is to ask a few questions…

Does this test the players or the characters? Alternatively, is this really a puzzle? For example, I’ve seen a few where the ‘puzzle’ is solved by speaking the names of the Dwarvish kings engraved on the door or something. In other words, the entire thing depends on rolling a good History check.

Here’s the thing – if most or all of the puzzle is solved using skill checks, then it’s not a good puzzle. It’s an obstacle, like a wide chasm to leap over or a tough lock to pick. A puzzle gets the players thinking, not passively rolling to see how smart their cleric is.

What happens if the players can’t solve it? I hope you have a backup plan for even the simplest of puzzles. Even a smart group can be stumped by a common riddle. If the game can’t proceed until they have solved it, then the puzzle needs reworking.

Fortunately, planning for failure is easy. Here are a few ideas, not all of which are mutually exclusive:

  • Solving the puzzle grants an optional boon: a powerful weapon, a clue, a shortcut. The trick is making it obvious that it is optional. Use the puzzle to protect a wall safe, or one of several exits from a room. If the players can solve it, great. If not, they can move on with the adventure.
  • Similarly, solving the puzzle avoids some difficulty: for example, it weakens the necromancer’s power or disables some traps up ahead. Again, the players can’t figure it out, they can press on regardless.
  • Give the players one shot at solving it: The room has four levers – the correct one opens the door, the others open the door but also release rabid wolverines into the room. Players either succeed or fail forward – no other possibility.
  • Give constant feedback on a finite set of options: like above, but failure earns a mild penalty instead of instant failure. Players explore the puzzle, figuring it out as they go.

Is there feedback to the players? In even simple puzzles, sometimes part of the trick is figuring out what the solution looks like before figuring out what it is. Using the example of the room with four levers, is one lever the correct one? Do they need to be arranged in a certain configuration? Do they have to be flipped in a certain order?

Puzzles like this are fun, but it can easily lead to players getting bogged down. They might get halfway to the solution, give up, then think they’ve tried everything. I’ve seen it happen. The trick is to give some sort of feedback that they are on the right track. Maybe hidden tumblers click audibly into place. Maybe the magical darkness lifts for a moment. Maybe the levers, once correctly flipped, are locked into place. Anything works as long as it tells the players “keep doing what you’re doing”.

Is your puzzle a riddle? Does it have to be? Now, there’s nothing wrong with riddles. I use them all the time. I even have a sheet of them printed out for emergencies. The thing is, asking your players “Easy to see / when allowed to plume / but hard to see / when held in a room” (answer: smoke) will probably be solved in two seconds. If not, it will take them forever. Riddles tend to be trivial or impossible, rarely in between.

The compromise I favour is to use riddles in your puzzles. Solving the riddle does not give you the whole answer, but it does give you part of one. The benefit of this is that the puzzle as a whole provides clues and contexts to the riddle, reducing it from impossible to tricky (and if it was trivial to start with, the players will feel smart as they tackle the rest).

Enough talk. Bring on the puzzles:

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Encounter: Nest of Steel

The tunnel slopes upward. You can see sunlight – bright, almost blinding – trickling into the darkness. There is a scent on the cool breeze blowing towards you. Blood? No. But something similar…

It occurs to me that I have a few styles when it comes to encounter design. Sometimes I wing it. Sometimes I put a bunch of NPCs in a room and see what happens. Sometimes I follow the excellent Five Room Dungeon format.

Then there are other encounters that fit a different pattern. They are longer than most 5 Room Dungeons. They are made of related mini-encounters, which lets me add or drop stuff on the fly. There is scope for player agency – lots of invitations for them to do something unexpected. Then there’s the climax that changes the world – maybe subtly, maybe dramatically.

I build these encounters using these guidelines:

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The Beating Heart of Creativity

I used to be really bad at creativity.

The young version of me was an interesting fellow, riddled with paradoxes. I’m sure you can imagine. Full of youthful enthusiasm, blessed with abundant free time, my mind was constantly churning. Night and day, regardless of the task before me, idea fragments flowed thick and fast. Novels, TV shows, board games, computer games, stories – I couldn’t switch it off. And yet, I was not creative.

Why not? On the surface, I was ticking the boxes. I was inspired, I had ideas. I would feel so totally alive when wrestling with a new character, setting or game mechanic – there was nothing else like it. I could build wondrous worlds inside my head.

But that was where it always stopped. If I tried to get these thoughts onto the screen or page, I’d hit a roadblock. The images were there, but translating them to something tangible was difficult. Almost insurmountable. It took a lot of discipline to even half-heartedly churn out some rough notes. Suffice to say, I would not be able to run a blog like this.

What was I missing? A vital ingredient in the creative process, one that I didn’t know I was lacking: energy. I lacked the energy to transform the starbursts of inspiration into something, anything, outside my head.

Now, I was not a lethargic person. I was lively, I exercised, I went out with friends. But all that stuff is easy. What I lacked, without realising, were deep reserves of energy needed to drive the creative process. Applying yourself is mentally taxing, far more so than my hobbies like tennis and bushwalking. I had plenty of time and inspiration. But I didn’t have the stamina to properly use them.

You might be thinking that I’m nuts – I mean, how hard is it to write down your own thoughts? It‘s part of my job, so it’s not like I’m incapable of writing. But most people who are professionally creative will tell you the same thing – getting your thoughts out of your head is tough work. It takes enormous focus. You have to hold the thoughts in your mind in all their excruciating, rich detail, while paying attention to each word or brushstroke and how they fit together. All while silencing your internal critics and external distractions.

The Beating Heart of Creativity

Can you visualise the last time you felt creative or truly inspired? Maybe it was recently or maybe it was a little while ago. Picture what you were doing as you remember how it felt. This is a wonderful feeling, isn’t it? Perhaps it is a feeling of lightness, of joy. For some people it is a burning sensation, an intensity that you cannot ignore. However it feels for you, I’m sure it’s pleasant and familiar.

Now, as this inspiration returns, how else are you feeling? Do you notice that you are confident and happy? Maybe you are also generous, enthusiastic, a joy to be around. One thing I know you feel, even now as you remember, is more energy. Positive emotions drive each other. Happiness makes you charismatic. Love makes you generous. Energy – good, natural energy that flows from deep in your chest – increases, and is increased by, pleasant emotions.

Feeling creative makes you energetic, just as boosting your energy increases your creativity.

Energy was what was missing for me. Once I remedied this, everything changed. I could focus for long periods, long enough to convert inspiration into creative works. I was happier, healthier, wonderful to be around. Suddenly I had extra hours in the day… or so it felt. The deep satisfaction I often feel now amazes me.

It really is a linchpin for life. Just as you begin to feel the energy flow, you also feel powerful. Creativity is energy and energy is power.

Creative energy and energetic creativity. I have learned that the terms are interchangeable. If my thoughts are sluggish and ideas are stale, then I know it’s because my body or mind is rundown. Let the body rest and the mind will shine.

Many people don’t appreciate this truth until they discover it for themselves. People are often pleasantly surprised by the effects. While you feel creative energy bursting inside you, it makes your mind conjure brilliant ideas. It makes your thoughts quicker, your body stronger, your personality brighter. It makes your heart sing.

Drive Your Energy

I’m still young, though I’m well beyond my teenage years. Even so, I am more energetic than I have ever been. Each year makes me better, as it does to all of us. This blog is one outlet for my energy and creativity, and even so it would have been a struggle for me most of my life. Now, I feel like I’m holding back, like I have so much more to pour into this.

You are curious to discover if you can create this feeling at will. You realise that you can, don’t you? Your energy, your creativity, your love and charisma, it all comes from the same place. The good news is that you can take responsibility for your own energy levels. Environment and genetics play a role, but how you treat your mind and body are the main drivers of your energy.

Nurturing creativity is essential. It is also simple. Give your mind time to breathe – put away the distractions and stare at the sky. Record every thought and idea fragment without judgement – great ideas look like bad ones at first glance.

Stoke the fires within. Many people find that just the word ‘creativity’ can make energy from nothing.

Your brain has two operating modes: focused intensity and diffuse playfulness. Do you want to focus on what you want, or do you want to relax and let your mind tell you? Both answers are fine, as people prefer different approaches. The best results come from knowing when to use each.

Enjoy the process. Savour your increasing energy. Don’t let the creativity overwhelm you.

Measure your personal energy. Find what drains you and cut it loose. Indulge in what makes you stronger.

Growth mindsets teach us that energy and creativity are skills you can master. You might not understand the value of a growth mindset. Schools don’t teach it and neither do businesses, but they are a valuable jewel to adorn your crown.

Take ownership of your energy. Cultivate it. Create it. Never look back.

Resources: D&D 5e Characters

I talked about how the best character backstories are short, interesting and open. Putting up or shutting up, I created a character for each core class in D&D 5e. I also included some Roleplaying notes for players and, for Game Masters, a few ways these backstories could be built into adventures.

If you’re in a hurry, feel free to grab one of the pre-gen character sheets from below. I don’t guarantee that I got all the details correct, but it should tide you over for the first session.

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Backstories That Shine

Here are two questions you might want to consider:

  • How much effort do you put into your PC’s backstory?
  • How important is a PC’s backstory, really?

The first question is one I can’t answer for you. The second, though, I can touch upon. In one sense, it depends on your first answer – if you put in a lot of effort, you’re the sort of person that thinks about their character and their goals, motivations, personality quirks, the whole lot.

In this case, the backstory is obviously important to you. But that doesn’t fully answer the question. The big question is: how important is it to the game master?

There are ranges of GM and campaign styles out there. The internet is full of discussions about linear vs sandbox and all the shades between. I’m not going to talk about that. I’m talking about the design of the campaign. Who came up with the setting and the bad guys and the names of the gods, stuff like that.

It matters. Some campaigns are straight-up published adventures and those, as I’m learning, can be great. A lot of campaigns, though, are set in unique and original worlds. The GM shapes the continents and populates them with kingdoms and designs a villain and gives him a nefarious purpose. Maybe these elements were invented by the GM or maybe they were cobbled together from different sources. Often, both. Either way, this world is the GM’s world, top to bottom.

Why does this matter? It matters because suddenly the answer to question 2 is “very, very important”. Think about it – if the entire world is a product of the GM’s mind, then everything is on the table. With published adventures, there’s only so much flexibility before you have ditched the source material entirely. But with a GM-designed campaign, anything can change at any point.

Get to the point? Okay, sure.

The better you make your character’s backstory, the more the campaign will revolve around them.

People like it when you make things easy for them. If you put a little effort into your backstory, your GM will thank you. The easier it is to work with, the more likely they will work with it. And given that campaigns can run for years, a bit of effort at the start can pay dividends like you wouldn’t believe.

What makes a backstory ‘better’? It’s a little subjective, of course. But I have both played in and run campaigns where the backstories were woven into the plot, so I like to think I know what works. You’re not far from a winner if you follow three guidelines:

  • Short
  • Interesting
  • Open

Firstly, keep it short. A few paragraphs is plenty. If it helps, pretend it’s a resume. Game masters are busy people – we do not have time to read two pages about how your character was born in the coal mines then worked in the coal mines then escaped the coal mines then killed the coal mine owners. Focus on the highlights and your game master will love you.

As a bonus, it gives you some wriggle room down the road. Suddenly decide your character is highly educated? I hope you didn’t spend half a page detailing their poor marks received from a second-rate school.

Secondly, make it interesting. If you tell the GM that you became a rogue because orcs burned down your village, there’s only so much that can be done with that. The best idea that came to me from that hook was that the bad guy paid the orcs to kill your parents in a deniable way because they were business rivals or something. But even with that twist, the story runs out of steam. You have a reason to hate the evil guy – who doesn’t? You are homeless because orcs killed your family – so are thousands of other nameless NPCs.

I promise you, if you make your backstory dull, it will barely come up. A good GM will figure out ways to include it anyway, but it won’t earn you many spotlights. It’s better for you both if you do some of the legwork.

Thirdly, keep it open by being a little vague in parts. I include this for completeness – in my experience, players tend to be good at this. But if you mention that your farming village’s dwarf cleric of Pelor, god of agriculture, prophesised that you would defeat evil by beheading a dragon with an enchanted axe, then the GM is cursing you, because now the setting needs dwarves and Pelor and the party will need to fight a dragon (which should probably not be a side quest so now the bad guys have dragons) and oh an axe, sure…

This isn’t a huge problem and not many people do it anyway. But by failing to keep it open enough it creates more work for the GM as they struggle to fit it with the other backstories and their own ideas. A few broad points that spark the imagination are much better than detailed, exacting descriptions of the world as your character knows it.

Of course, none of this matters if the game master doesn’t use your backstory. But why risk it? A few paragraphs of a barely-original-but-kinda-neat character concept could reshape the entire world. In my campaign not using the published adventure, there are five regular players. I’m not ashamed to admit that the character with the best backstory, the one that sparked my imagination the strongest, had the biggest impact on the setting. While most other character-specific subplots have been resolved, his is still unfolding. A year and a half after starting the campaign. That might not seem fair to the others but his backstory gave me the most usable material, and who am I to turn down free imagination fuel?

To prove how easy this is, I’ve put together a character for each core class in D&D 5e. Each backstory follows the principles above – they are short, interesting and open. If you’re stuck, use these characters. Or use someone else’s, I don’t care. The goal is to make your character shine in the GM’s eyes – as long as you do that, I’m happy.