As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Wii and I’m completely enamored with it. I play through the temples and wonder why none of the dungeons that I’ve played through in D&D have the same feel as they do.
While there’s a few very good reasons why they’ll never be the same (just due to the differences of playing a one person video game and a party-based table-top D&D game), there’s no reason why the same level of enchantment and mystery shouldn’t be able to be captured.
Let’s look at some of the ways we can incorporate different types of puzzles into your games.
When it comes to puzzles, there’s a few different things we can be talking about. The most common are word puzzles or riddles. In addition to riddles, the other two types of puzzles are what I’ll call game puzzles and environment puzzles. I’ll go ahead and explain what I mean by each.
Riddles are the most common type of puzzle you see throughout most lore. One of the earliest well-known riddle is the Riddle of the Sphinx.
Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?
The answer, of course, as given by Oedipus is:
Man, who crawls on four legs as a baby, walks on two during adulthood, and uses a cane during old age.
There are plenty of sites online that have a bunch of riddles for you to choose from. Common problems with many of these sites are that the riddles themselves make reference to modern ideas that are not going to fit well into the typical fantasy genre. The other problem you get is that it’s hard to find a good riddle that nobody in your group has heard of before.
To work around the “heard it” problem, your antagonist can have a riddle for each member of the party and if one player has heard it, just give it to someone else. The problem here, is that you open the chance for someone to simply get stuck and not be able to answer theirs. Remember – not everyone’s good at word puzzles. And having one person fail always sucks – especially if you just assumed that everyone would be able to make it through.
Game puzzles are also somewhat common, both in table-top and video game settings. I like to describe this as using the components and/or rules from a well-known game to introduce a challenging situation that the PCs need to overcome.
This option offers many possibilities. It can be as simple as a dice game that you need to beat an opponent at or something more complex. Most of these sorts of challenges have a magical component to them that’s intelligent enough to know when you’ve successfully completed the challenge.
I recall one game that a DM gave us a Sudoku puzzle to complete before we could advance in the dungeon. This was just at the beginning of the Sudoku craze in the US, so it wasn’t as simple as it would be now. In that same dungeon, we had to solve the Eight Queens Puzzle. If you’re unfamiliar with this puzzle, it’s defined simple as follows:
The eight queens puzzle is the problem of putting eight chess queens on an 8Ã—8 chessboard such that none of them is able to capture any other using the standard chess queen’s moves. The color of the queens is meaningless in this puzzle, and any queen is assumed to be able to attack any other. [via Wikipedia]
If you don’t simply know the answer, it can be a rather tough challenge.
The good thing about this approach is that it’s much easier to make up your own challenges and you can easily introduce challenges that the PCs can work at until they succeed. I prefer these over riddles (whenever appropriate) since there isn’t an automatic fail if the person doesn’t immediately get it. It’s also much easier for a DM to give “hints” in most of these situations.
With the incorporation of a “magical game board”, you don’t even need to introduce any unnecessary NPCs for the PCs to interact with. They simply enter a room and read an inscription or a Magic Mouth activates. If you want to be more clever, you can just set the stage and let them both figure out what the objective is along with how to achieve it.
These are the puzzles that you solve in video games like The Legend of Zelda. They come from activating one trigger in a particular room that unlocks some functionality. This could be in the same or in a different room. Depending on the level of complexity, an entire dungeon can require a very strict order of triggers that need to be unlocked before you advance to the next room or gain access to the next trigger.
The complexity that can be achieved with these sorts of puzzles is mind-numbing. And if you’ve ever played games like The Legend of Zelda, you’ll know how complicated they can be.
The problem with these sorts of puzzles is that they don’t translate easily to a table-top game like D&D easily. Here are a number of problems that you can encounter when you’re forcing your PCs to interact with the environment heavily for these sorts of puzzles:
- If you’re requiring spot or search checks to discover triggers, a low roll can simply mean that your party is stuck and can’t go any further. If your dungeon requires consistently high skill checks in order to succeed without a backup plan, then this isn’t a well-designed dungeon.
- It’s easy to get in the habit of over-describing certain features to draw your character’s attention to it. PCs are drawn to things that are “out of the ordinary”, and will try to examine them whenever given the chance.
- Building on the previous point, if you find that you need to be more verbose in a description, you probably need to be consistently verbose about describing things in all areas of a given dungeon. For instance, if the wind whistling across a certain point is integral to your puzzle, then you should probably mention noise and airflow in your other rooms so this doesn’t stand out too much. This can lend itself to very long room descriptions that slow down the game.
- It’s hard to make a puzzle that let’s a single player show off particular strengths without side-lining other players. One way to overcome this is to have certain things happen simultaneously, with each piece drawing on a character’s strengths.
I think one of the best parts of environment puzzles is that when you’re done, you’ve not only accomplished the ultimate goal (be it obtaining an item, defeating a boss at the end of the dungeon, etc.), but you’ve also “defeated the puzzle” itself. These are the easiest puzzles to link together with some degree of cohesion and require them to logically rely on each other.
Introducing The Puzzles Into Your Game
As far as difficulty, riddles are the simplest to introduce. If a sufficiently powerful NPC or magical force requires the riddle to be answered to proceed, then the PCs simply need to provide that answer. No real work needed on the DMs side.
Game puzzles require a bit more work if there’s some degree of DM interaction with the game environment. For puzzles like Eight Queens, just produce a chess board and 8 pieces to represent queens (since you likely won’t have 8 actual queens to use). Usually there will need to be some sort of “prop”, like a deck of cards, a chess board, some marbles, etc. Either way, you can probably get your hands on these fairly cheaply at a local store.
Environment puzzles are going to be the most variable in terms of effort required. If you plan on only describing the rooms and effects, then you should still spec out a very detailed list of triggers, effects and any requirements that subsequent triggers have before they can be accessed. To pull some of these scenarios off, you’ll need to be organized.
If you usually use maps, then you’re going to want to carefully weigh how much detail you add for the triggers. As I mentioned above, if you make the triggers obvious on your maps, then the PCs will just be drawn to them. Depending on how artistic you are, you might have a lot of work ahead of you. Above all, make sure you’re being consistent in your description delivery – be it visually or vocally.
Be sure to feel free to use all three types of puzzles as you see fit. There’s no reason why a dungeon or room require only one type of puzzle to be used. Find what works to achieve the level of complexity and the atmosphere you’re looking to create.
So What About Monsters?
We spend so much time in D&D killing things that it seems immediately alien when we’re not in battle. If you’re going to introduce a puzzle-heavy dungeon, you may want to limit the amount of combat encounters that you have your PCs engage in. There’s two main reasons why I think the fighting should take a back seat to the puzzles.
First, battle can take a long time. If the PCs are spending 5 minutes on a puzzle and then an hour in battle, the puzzles get overshadowed and all of your hard work will often be forgotten. I’m fairly certain most DMs get frustrated when they spend hours planning things and it barely registers with the PCs that they overcame it.
Second, and possibly most important, if the entire dungeon is difficult for the PCs to get into due to these puzzles, how were the monsters able to get into it?
Those two points being made, it’s certainly possible for there to be guardians that need to be overcome before the PC can advance. Perhaps the key to another room in the dungeon is actually inside of an ooze (to be discovered as treasure) and until the PCs battle it, they won’t be able to advance further. Just keep in mind that if you put 2 ogres in a sealed room that they’ll starve soon enough. Just ask yourself, “if this dungeon were sealed for 2 years, would the monsters survive”?
The main point is that you shouldn’t feel obligated to fill every room and corridor with enemies for the PCs to fight. A set of challenging puzzles can be as rewarding to overcome as the toughest NPC you can throw at them. Sometimes using your brain is more rewarding than simply rolling high.
There should be an obvious point to the PCs venturing into this dungeon in the first place. Accomplishing this task is the primary reward that they’ll receive. Whether it’s obtaining items, information or defeating a foe, that’s what they’re there to do. But if the puzzles are challenging, then they’re encounters in their own right, and experience should be rewarded for them.
You can either set a DC for each individual puzzle or a DC for the entire series of puzzles. If you have a complex environment puzzle, you’re likely better off setting one DC for the whole dungeon given the dependency. Be sure to adjust the DC if the PCs required hints – if you made the puzzle easier, then challenge is lower and thus the DC.
The real reward is an adventure that your PCs will likely never forget.