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:
Personalised Letter Maze
A complex magical pattern fills the chamber, stretching from floor to ceiling. Before this field is a simple bronze statue of a grinning man, three feet high. As you step into the room, the statue vanishes with a flash of light. In its place are scrolls – one for each of you, each bearing one of your names.
Letters appear on the floor within the magical field. The field shimmers with what almost looks like anticipation.
This puzzle takes a bit of prep but is worth the effort. It is perfect for a bored wizard’s lair. It’s intended more to test or slow down intruders while also showing off the wizard’s skills. It (probably) won’t kill anyone but it will leave them irritated and impressed.
Each scroll contains a riddle describing one of the characters. The answer to the riddle is a path through the field that they (and they alone) can follow. If any character steps on the wrong letter, they receive a small amount of damage and are pushed out of the field.
This works best with tough riddles. If the players crack it, great. If not, they can risk some damage by guessing the first letter.
An example makes things clearer. With the characters entering on the left, they saw this grid:
For the rogue, the riddle was:
Your speedy fingers
Hide what you stole,
You start with a choice,
But end with a hole
For the whimsical pixie, the riddle was:
Games and such,
You start with a show
But end with too much
For the paladin:
A battler, warrior
Who fights for Her law,
You start with a purchase,
End with a small flaw
For the wizard who was created when crazy cultists fused several souls together:
A product; you think
At the start but
You end with a drink
For the guy brought back from the dead:
Once what was dead,
Brought back against fate,
Start with short replies
But end standing straight
Levers of Truth
The wall has a few levers on it, all set parallel to the ground. On inspection you notice that each can be rotated so it is pointing upwards or downwards. Below each lever is an engraved plaque.
This puzzle, again, is designed to test. Since it is a pure logic puzzle, maybe it protects the secret entrance to the Temple of Wisdom. If you can solve it, you are worthy of entry.
The plaques provide clues as to which way to flip each lever. The great thing about this puzzle is that it is reusable – maybe the first room is simple, with the clues getting harder as you progress. The bad news is that designing this puzzle can be tricky – I stole this puzzle a while ago and adapted it to an RPG context. Feel free to steal these from me.
This implementation involves a series of separate rooms, so each room is its own puzzle. Feel free to hint somewhere that levers should point upwards if the statement on the plaque is true, downwards if the statement is false. Without a clue, make the punishment for failure minor and recoverable.
First Room – three levers. Left to right the plaques read:
1) At least one of the levers 2 and 3 should point down.
2) Lever 1 should point up.
3) More of these levers should point down than up.
Answer: UUD (up up down)
1) At least one of these levers should point down.
2) At least two of these levers should point down.
3) At least three of these levers should point down.
4) At least four of these levers should point down.
5) At least five of these levers should point down.
6) At least six of these levers should point down.
1) Exactly one of the even-numbered levers should point down.
2) Exactly one of the odd-numbered levers should point up.
3) Exactly two of the even-numbered levers should point down.
4) Exactly two of the odd-numbered levers should point up.
5) Exactly three of the even-numbered levers should point down.
6) Exactly three of the odd-numbered levers should point up.
1) If you knew whether this lever should point up or down, you could find a lever that should point up.
2) The other lever should point down.
1) The number of levers that should point down is a multiple of three.
2) There are not five levers that should point down in total.
3) Levers 1 and 6 should either both point up or both point down.
4) There is at least one lever that should point down among levers 1, 2 and 3.
5) More levers should point down than up.
6) <this plaque is missing>
The archway stands open, though the faint pulsing of a magical lock remains. On the wall next to the arch is an ornate grid carved into the stone. On top of the grid are a pair of those strange, black stones – perfectly rectangular, clearly magical, they had remained a mystery since you looted a bag of them from the necromancer’s corpse. All your testing had discovered was that they repelled each other when brought into contact.
You remove one of the stones from the wall. The magical barrier springs back into place. You replace the stone where it was and, sure enough, the barrier comes down. Interesting…
This is designed to not just challenge intruders but keep them out – the black stones act as magical keys, without which no amount of good logic will help. This is another puzzle I stole from a non-RPG context and adapted. The rules are simple – each stone is 2×1 grid squares. Place the stones on the grid such that:
- no two stone-covered squares are touching horizontally or vertically (diagonally is fine),
- the stones divide the grid into regions. Each region has all instances of a symbol, and only that symbol, in it.
You can explain these rules but I like to give them one (and only one) solved example already, as per the description above. Let the players experiment a little – just remember that if they try to place stones next to each other, the stones repel each other.
Completed grid the characters first see:
Puzzles with answers: