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: