Let’s be honest, most of the time, puzzles don’t go over well with our parties. Either they take too long and the players get bored, or they are so easy they don’t really seem like much of a challenge (seriously? Why would a god or ancient wizard make that?)
How do you make puzzles that your players will love AND that will challenge them? Here is what you need to consider:
Purpose: What is the end result you are hoping to accomplish with this puzzle? Why does it exist at all?
Dangers: What level of danger does this puzzle present?
Drawbacks: What happens if they get it wrong?
Challenge Level: How difficult do you want this puzzle to be?
Brain vs. and Brawn: To ensure everyone enjoys your puzzles, you need to include something both ways of playing.
Hints: ALWAYS hide hints on how to solve the puzzle. Not an option.
BONUS- Hidden “Work-Arounds”: For players that are particularly creative or good at observations, I like to have some hidden “workarounds” they can use. See more on this below!
If you are purposeful and intent on each of these categories for your puzzle, you are sure to create something your players are going to love. Now let’s look at each one of these in more detail to help you get started!
There needs to be a purpose for your puzzle, otherwise it is just an annoying speed bump that your players are going to hate. Only use puzzles when it makes sense in the story, and even then, you need to make it abundantly clear WHY you are doing it.
Players need to be assured that their efforts will be rewarded. So if they are diving into a dungeon filled with puzzles, make sure to leave hints at every step of the treasure or powerful item that is hidden at the end. This will keep the players engaged with your puzzles because they know there is a carrot at the end of the stick.
Puzzles for the sake of puzzles are not fun. They just aren’t. Sorry. Make sure you have a purpose for each puzzle.
Now that you know why the puzzle is there, you need to decide how dangerous it will be. Is this puzzle nonthreatening and just designed to discourage adventures, or is this a deadly puzzle designed to kill the unworthy?
Make sure if you have a deadly puzzle that you drop enough hints to let your party know to take it seriously, unless you like the surprise factor of dealing 54 points of acid damage out of the blue (…sorry guys..)
The danger level of your puzzle will guide you in the next two steps..
What happens if they get the puzzle wrong? In a non-threatening puzzle, it could just reset and the players could try again, in a deadly puzzle, it could unleash a monster, acid could fall from the ceiling (again…sorry..) or a spell could be triggered (like Power Word Kill). Drawbacks could include any of the following:
Spells: Some of my favorites include Fireball, Power Word Kill, Stinking Cloud (LOVE this one!) Spike Growth,
Physical Attacks: Fire from statues, Acid from the ceiling, Floor tiles falling, Spikes, Collapsing walls, Poison arrows or darts etc.
Puzzle Reset: For some puzzles, if they are solved incorrectly, you can have the puzzle reset in a new configuration that the players then have to figure out.
Time Limits: The players have a limited amount of time to solve the puzzle once they begin/enter the room. This really helps fight overthinking!
Next, I like to decide how difficult I want the puzzle to be. Is this a simple “put-the-object-in-the-right-slot” puzzle, or something that will require more thought? I should note that even my “really hard” puzzles are not really that difficult.
You have to remember, anything you think of will be 2-3x harder for your players to think of in the moment. You have a very clear picture of the room in your mind, after all, you designed it, but your players don’t. Players will, often times, also misinterpret what you are saying or not listen to your description at all.
And, let’s not forget, OVER THINKING. Players will think a situation to death! Which is why I like to have time limits on most of my puzzles.
Brain vs. and Brawn
Puzzles are often used to make the brainer members of the party feel more useful, but they don’t have to exclude the brawny members! You can include the following to make your puzzles enjoyable to everyone!
A monster/horde of enemies emerges that your party must fight until the puzzle is correctly solved (I love this as it is both a drawback AND a timer!)
To access a part of the puzzle, a large rock or statue must be moved with a successful strength check
A thick wall of quartz must be broken by non-magical means in order to get to the last piece of the puzzle
Only the simply may enter, to walk through a barrier to finish a puzzle, a player must have an intelligence of 10 or lower (I love this one for those quintasential “dumb barbarians”)
By incorporating both brain and brawn into your puzzle design, you will ensure that all members of your party end up loving your puzzles.
If you party is doing their due diligence and investigating your puzzle room, you should reward them with hints and clues for how to solve your puzzle. This can be done any of the following ways:
Artwork: Murals and art work around the room depicting different elements of your puzzle or perhaps the drawbacks and dangers of answering incorrectly.
Bodies: It is very likely that others have tried and failed to solve this puzzle before your party. It is possible these bodies could contain notes on the puzzle, thoughts, or a missing inscription or item the players did not have.
Markings/Footprints: If something needs to slide or be moved for a puzzle to be solved and a player rolls a decent perception/investigation check, I make sure to tell them that they see “scrapes on the floor as if the heavy statue has been moved several times”, or “a bloody handprint on the third button.”
These hints both make the puzzle easier for the player to solve and reward them for being smart players. As I talk about in my article on the benefits of the inspiration system, players only learn to be better players when you reward them for actions you would like to see them do more often. Giving them clues when they take the time to investigate rooms is a great way to do this.
Bonus! Hidden “Work-Arounds”
I love hiding a “work-around” in each of my puzzles for if my players are especially creative or ingenuitive. A lever attached to a book which opens a hidden by-pass door (because a mage wouldn’t want to solve his own puzzle every time he came home, now would he?) or a false wall or even a hidden portal.
My players LOVE finding these, it is like a mini-game for them. I even give them inspiration if they do find the “work-around.” It is a lot of fun and has really added to my player’s enjoyment of my puzzles.
The internet is FULL of puzzle and riddle ideas that you can use and adapt, but the best planned puzzle will fall flat if you don’t consider these aspects.
By including all members of the party, making sure the puzzle is appropriately challenging and dangerous for the area, laying out clues and providing options, you are sure to make puzzles your players will love and talk about for many many sessions.
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!
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