Ok, first the disclaimers. Not all puzzles suck. Not every player is turned off by them. Not every party gets confused or bored by them. Not every DM is frustrated when the party bypasses them. Not every party will just go around them or ignore them. There are certainly some situations where puzzles are interesting and fun. Those situations are not the topic of the day.
Puzzles generally fall into a few categories.
- Levers and switches
- Fetch and return
- Find the clues
There are many more, but these are some of the more common.
Outside of a tabletop RPG, most of these kinds of puzzles are very interesting and fun, particularly for people who enjoy puzzles. Many DM’s enjoy puzzles, and adding a fun little puzzle seems like something enjoyable to break up the monotony of yet another hack n’ slash session. Be warned. A puzzle in-game probably won’t work as intended.
Let’s take a few puzzles by example.
The Lich’s crypt is guarded by six levers, numbered one through six, and can only be opened when levers 2, 4, and 5 are up; 1 and 3 are down; and 6 is in the middle. The party finds said crypt. Ok, what is going to happen when you have five people who have not read your notes reach this dead end door?
Well, if they are anything like players I have played with they will begin trying to scry for help, or attack the levers. None of them will want to go through the tedium of actually trying combinations. If they can’t:
A) Find an answer in town or
B) Bybass the levers with a skill/ability check
Then they will exit the dungeon and go find entertainment elsewhere. And after the session they will discuss amongst themselves how stupid the levers were. I suggest allowing a skill challenge to get through this, and use the combination as added flavor. I.e. on a success say “lever number 1 clicks in the down position” or something similar. This makes the character’s skills relevant but allows you to let them in on the puzzle.
Riddles: I enjoy riddles a great deal. My rule of thumb here is: don’t punish the players for getting the wrong answer. Odds are pretty good that they won’t know the answer, even to a riddle you may consider obvious. If the consequence of getting the answer wrong is loss of a significant treasure or serious damage (even death) then you should allow for a knowledge check of some sort to get the correct answer. Even then I would err on the side of caution, and never stick to only one “correct” answer. If you are looking for “honor” as the answer, then you may also want to accept things like “courage” “valor” “trust” etc.
Fetch and Return: Go get gem A and place it on pedestal B, but only after you find gem B and place on pedestal C, but pedestal C is on level 1 and pedestal A is on level 3 and gem C is in that town we left two sessions ago. Odds are extremely high that one or more piece of your puzzle will simply be skipped by the players.
They reach the end of level 3 of the dungeon but can’t get through the door. What then? “You’re all so stupid,” you shout. “It was back there, and it was obvious. I dropped like a dozen clues.”
Um, players aren’t stupid or uncreative because they didn’t follow your little track down the path of glory. They can’t read minds and you shouldn’t expect them to. If it really means that much to you to have them find gems A, B, and C, then give them gems A, B, and C at the same time. If you don’t want them to lose/sell them, then place them in the same room as pedestal A, B, and C, and clearly describe how the gems look like they should fit into or onto the pedestals. Otherwise they will sell the gems for loot and all your precious creative time will have been worthless because they will just go somewhere else and do something else.
Mazes: Any idea how boring it is to go through 900 miles of dungeon terrain one square at a time with zero encounters. Well I do. IT SUCKS. The dungeon should have a point other than being a windy twisty concoction you spewed onto graph paper one evening when you had nothing better to do because once again you couldn’t get a date. Mazes look good on paper. They are horrible to play through.
Find the clues: A combination of Fetch and Return and Riddles. Just remember, the players didn’t have a clue when the session started, and they won’t have one when the session ends, so don’t expect them to have a clue when they reach the riddle.
So, keep your puzzles for nights you don’t play, and when you do play Have Fun!
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