The dragon’s flames roared below them. The wizard and rogue worked hard to decipher the puzzle. A sliding piece puzzle of circles daunting to these two masters. But if there was one thing that would stop them, this was it. The wizard faltered briefly as the tiny hut disintegrated around them permitting the scorching heat and the angry dragon to interfere. Combat broke out and before they fell, the puzzle was solved. A dark and ancient magic was absorbed into the altar, now sealed until the next villain releases it.An unknown bard’s account of Invaltia’s Ire
Whether you’re opening an ancient doorway, avoiding danger, sealing an ancient power or figuring out what happened to that one pet that still isn’t dead, a good puzzle can make a session or dungeon that much more memorable, especially when they bypass it with that one crazy idea that they just so happen to roll a nat 20 on. So today, I want to help you figure out what a good puzzle would be for your next adventure!
Now of course, no two groups are exactly the same, and so a puzzle that’s good for one game might not be good for another, and not everyone will love the same puzzle someone else does, so while this is a guide, you are highly encouraged to switch things up depending on your game table.
A Curious Thing Puzzles
When you make a puzzle, there are a few things you want to keep in mind: It shouldn’t be too hard, it should have a reason, and it should also have weight. A puzzle that’s too hard will cause frustration and eat precious game time, a puzzle that has no reason is just annoying, and a puzzle that doesn’t have weight won’t motivate anyone to solve it. You need to balance these things properly. If you don’t, it may fall flat depending on your group.
To start, let’s figure out how difficult you want it to be. If you want the puzzle to be solved quickly, you’ll want to be sure it requires no guesswork, and minimal calculation to understand. If you want the puzzle to take a long time to solve, that’s when you break out red herrings, unexplained mechanics, leaps in logic, and hidden clues. However if you think a puzzle is a little too hard you can try some of the following:
- Skip red herrings
- Explain why certain things are happening
- Allow a check to skip certain details
- Remove a part entirely
- Let some crazy idea the party comes up with work
Now for determining the reason, it’s simple: Ask why the puzzle is there. What does it protect? Does it solve itself (a.k.a. Is the puzzle already solved by the party’s attempts to reach it or by an NPC)? Does it need to be bypassed by anyone, and if so, how easy would it be to bypass? Does it require specific skills to solve? How will this progress the story? Who built it or if nobody, how did it get there? Has it been there the entire time? Will it do something for the game? It’s never fun when the puzzle doesn’t even need to be there, and is only taking up precious time. Just trust me on this one.
Finally, the weight. Of all these things, this is the easiest to add, but probably the hardest to get right because weight and difficulty need to be balanced together. If there isn’t enough weight, it’ll just feel like a waste of time. Too much and it’ll feel completely unnecessary and unfair. You always need something to get your players to solve the puzzle, but try not to go overboard. For ideas on how to give your puzzle weight, here are a few things you can try:
- Add a reward such as money, potions, scrolls, resources, or new equipment for solving it.
- Add an element of danger such as a trap or a monster encounter. The trap or monster must be something the party can survive before the puzzle is finished.
- Put something on the line (familiar/pet/companion, ally, village, precious item, abilities, condition, etc.)
Wrap It Together
As long as you have these three components, you can make any puzzle good. Some might not seem like they follow this rule, but they do. As an example: a room with two doors (one of which is closed), a button, and a countdown. When the button is pushed, it closes the other door and starts the countdown. Pushing the button again resets the countdown. As the countdown progresses, the light in the room goes out, causing colors or other sensory effects to appear increasing tension, and when it finishes, the doors open, and any effects end. This puzzle isn’t good on it’s own, because it solves itself after a single button press. But, if you put it after an intense dungeon, it’s great at slowing the pace, and preparing the party to solve simple puzzles later on, though you can use it as a killzone or a way to slow invaders. And with that final tip for today, I hope I’ve inspired you with my Bardic Inspiration, because we could all use extra d12s these days. Good Luck!