How to Run Puzzles in DnD
Published on October 8, 2019, Last modified on March 2nd, 2020
In DnD 5e, there are 3 pillars of core gameplay: Combat, Role-playing, and Exploration. In our article A Guide to Building Encounters we stated that “an encounter is when players experience or are faced with something difficult or hostile”.
In that article, we focused mainly on Combat encounters, whereas in this article we will be looking at puzzles, which mainly fall under the Exploration pillar.
Puzzles are a very effective tool to switch things up on your players for two reasons:
- Puzzles and riddles are “metagamey” – Typically when your party encounters a puzzle, the 20 Intelligence Wizard isn’t going to be better or worse than the 6 Intelligence Barbarian. Puzzles give an opportunity to break character and for everyone to contribute.
- Combat and Role-playing are usually resolved via rolling dice but puzzles and riddles are not – It wouldn’t be a very good puzzle if your party could walk into a room, roll a natural 20 and automatically solve the puzzle. The players will have to use their own ingenuity and cooperation to solve the puzzle.
How to Run Puzzles Effectively
Puzzles are hard to get right in DnD 5e. The system gives players so much freedom that it is easy for players to get sidetracked on unimportant details. This freedom could also provide players with the perfect spell or ability to bypass the puzzle entirely. At Arcane Eye, we have created a system that will make sure you keep your players engaged with your puzzle. We call it the 3 Laws of Puzzle Making.
3 Laws of Puzzle Making
The 3 Laws of Puzzle Making are as follows:
- Thou Shalt Make Puzzles Obvious
- Thou Shalt Create Alternatives to Thy Puzzle
- Thou Shalt Not Make Puzzles Reliant On Rolls
Let’s break these down in more detail:
Thou Shalt Make Puzzles Obvious
Players should know when they are walking into a puzzle. They should also know which type of puzzle they are walking in to. When creating a puzzle for your party, you should ensure that as the party encounters the puzzle they are aware of what is facing them. This is important because, as mentioned above, puzzles take players outside of their characters so they have to be ready to shift their brain state.
Another thing that will lead to effective puzzle encounters is making the goal of the puzzle obvious. Thinking back to one of the best puzzle dungeons ever created, the ending of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is a great framework to reference for this.
Before going into the dungeon, the trio have their end goal in mind: stop “Snape” from getting the Philosopher’s Stone. They also know that a bunch of teachers have pitched in to help keep the stone hidden.
When it comes to the individual puzzles the goal is obvious: move forward into the next room. However, the way they are presented with each of these puzzles makes the simple task of getting into the next room a challenge. They may have to find the right key in a swarm of flying keys that tries to attack them, they may have to defeat an enchanted chess board, or they might have to solve a logic puzzle. One thing remains constant, they know what the puzzle is trying to do and how to progress through the dungeon.
Thou Shalt Create Alternatives to Thy Puzzle
Not everybody’s brain is wired the same. Most of the time when you create a convoluted puzzle based on a thread of logic that you think is obvious, it is going to go right over the players’ heads.
This could be a major obstacle when you have created a puzzle encounter that doesn’t let your players progress unless they solve it. There’s nothing worse than your players getting frustrated and feeling helpless because of a situation that you created for them.
In order to avoid this, it is best to make puzzles optional. You might be thinking “but I put so much time into creating the puzzle! I don’t want my players to just bypass it.” While that is a very good point, DnD is a game based on giving your players choice. If your players can’t figure out the puzzle they have been presented with and they are no longer able to advance in the dungeon because of it, it’s going to be a bad time all around.
Instead of making your puzzles mandatory, you can create rewards or consequences based on how your players approach the puzzle. One such situation I created for my players in one of our campaigns would have allowed the party to bypass a number of encounters and get the drop on the dungeon’s boss. Unfortunately they took one look at the puzzle and ran the other way. As I mentioned above, it was a bit frustrating, but in the end DnD is about giving your players the choice to approach the situation in the way they want.
Thou Shalt Not Base Puzzles on Rolls
If your players need to succeed on a skill or ability check in order to progress in your puzzle, you’re doing it wrong.
When your party encounters the puzzle, you should give them all of the pieces they need in order to complete it. If you’re hiding one of the puzzle pieces behind a Perception or Insight check and the party fails, they are going to feel cheated. This is because puzzles are meant to test a player’s cleverness, not how lucky they are.
While the main pieces to the puzzle are always in plain view, I do like to hide hints behind ability checks. I typically structure the hint into two tiers:
- If they succeed the DC X ability check, then they receive the more useful hint
- If they fail the check, they are provided with a less helpful, more vague hint
Types of Puzzles
Now that we have figured out how to run puzzles effectively, let’s take a look at the different types of puzzles that you’ll be able to run.
DnD is an interesting game to try to complete puzzles for, as creating visual assets could require loads of time/talent using design software. Most puzzles I have seen use the typical verbal description, but the more advanced your puzzle is, the more time you will have to take to make sure it’s understandable.
With that in mind, here are the broad categories your puzzles will fall into:
Combat puzzles are a great way to spice up an encounter with a monster. There are a bunch of ways to run these puzzles but the most common scenario is usually: there is a big bad guy that can’t be killed unless you figure out his weakness.
Nintendo loves these types of puzzles. If you have played any games like Ocarina of Time, Metroid Prime or Mario 64 you will find that most bosses typically have 3 similar traits:
- They are more powerful/larger than the players
- They are easily dodged but hit like a truck
- They aren’t able to be damaged until you exploit their weak spot in some way
For some inspiration for your next combat encounter, check out www.zeldadungeon.net’s wiki of Ocarina of Time Bosses. Obviously this contains spoilers for Ocarina of Time, but honestly if you haven’t played this game stop doing what you’re doing and play it right now.
Logic puzzles are puzzles that require the use of logical deduction to solve.
Logic puzzles do not rely upon misleading or ambiguous statements, or play on words, as do riddles. With logic puzzles, players are presented with facts. From these facts, players must generate hypotheses and test them until they are found to be successful.
An example of a logic puzzle would be:
You are in a room with three chests. You know at least one has treasure, and if a chest has no treasure, it contains a deadly poison.
Each chest has a message on it, but all the messages are lying.
Left chest: “The middle chest has treasure.”
Middle chest: “All these chests have treasure.”
Right chest: “Only one of these chests has treasure.”
Which chests have treasure?
Due to the fact that logic puzzles can be ambiguous and single-solution oriented, they can become quite frustrating for players that become stuck. As there is sometimes an element of trial and error involved in logic puzzles, it is a great idea to come up with a reasonable consequence each time the party does not succeed.
Physics Puzzles use the Laws of Physics to create a scenario that can be solved by applying fundamental forces of nature such as gravity, motion, and thermodynamics.
These puzzles are pretty tricky to pull off and require a fair amount of research before creating, but can be very rewarding and a bit more straightforward for players.
When looking for examples of physics puzzles, one should look no further than Portal/Portal 2. The Portal Wiki has a great breakdown of all of the levels, their puzzles, and their solutions.
I find that the puzzles are awesome for getting the entire party involved, unlike riddles and logic puzzles.
Riddles are your classic puzzles for DnD. They are the easiest type of puzzle to run, only needing a vague question that is meant to trick or mislead the recipient.
The issue with riddles is they typically only have one correct answer. If your players just aren’t on the same wavelength as you, it can be almost impossible to solve the riddle they were presented with.
When running riddles, it is best to give your party a choice. They can hear the riddle, but if they get it wrong something bad will happen. If they get it right, something good will happen. If they do not know, they can walk away and nothing will happen.
This system has the unique ability to reward ingenuity, discourage rash decision making, and give players a failsafe, all in one situation.
Pattern Guessing may seem like a very simple puzzle to some, but when creating these puzzles you get back what you put in.
DnD has tons of lore that can be used to draw upon when coming up with how your pattern guessing puzzle will function. For example, you can implement facets of Schools of Magic, Planes, Pantheons, or Old Heroes into your design. The list of things you can use to make your pattern guessing puzzles unique and interesting is literally unlimited.
Need Some Puzzles?
Puzzles are hard to come up with by yourself. Not only do they require a lot of working and reworking, but it can be hard to even think up a concept in the first place!
Not to worry, we have curated a list of puzzles that will get you started:
- 100+ Dungeon Puzzles & Mysteries – Reddit
- Mysterious Monuments – Reddit User /u/GelatinousDude
- Riddles for DMs Part 1 and Part 2 – farlandworld.com
- D100 of Tricks, Puzzles and Riddles – Reddit
- 100 Riddles And Their Answers – dndspeak.com
- 101 Dungeon Puzzles & Mysteries – forum.rpg.net
- Wally DM Puzzles – Youtube