GM Advice: Puzzle Inspirations

An area of the game where GMs can really stretch their creative muscles is puzzles. No system has elaborate mechanics for puzzles, because it’s not something you can police. Every puzzle is different, and if you reduce it to a series of rolls it becomes, essentially, a waste of time. This is a problem that occurred with traps in later editions of Dungeons & Dragons. In the early game, players would rely on their wits and creative thinking to detect traps and figure out how to bypass them or disrupt their mechanisms. Eventually, the game’s designers tried to account for the fact that a character’s skills and knowledge are not the same thing as a player’s skills and knowledge. Traps could be discovered and deactivated purely by making skill checks. It’s a reasonable idea in theory, but the practical effect was to reduce traps to the role of largely tedious speed bumps in the game’s pacing. They were barriers to progression before, of course, but they presented a challenge the player could sink their teeth into.

Puzzles, when used, remain a part of the game where the person being challenged is really the player, not their character. I’d argue that this isn’t a bad thing. The player is the one we’re trying to entertain, Does it matter, in the end, how that is accomplished? It does follow, however, that puzzles are only worthwhile additions when we have players who will be entertained by them.

When you can’t create, borrow.

If you have at least some players that enjoy an occasional puzzle challenge, then like me you might struggle to invent suitably creative challenges. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone when I say that creating a good puzzle from scratch is extremely hard, and it’s usually best to borrow and re-purpose one that already exists.For instance, you might be able to lift one straight from a published adventure. You could do that as is, or you could think about the actual mechanics of the puzzle (the choices and combinations made, and the results), and dress it up in a new skin.

Use actual games as inspiration.

You can do much the same with real world puzzles and games. Here are a few examples, all of which might be necessary to unlock a chest/door/magical barrier/secret passage/etc.:

  • In a predetermined number of moves, move a knight to a specific place or take a specific piece on a chess board (known in the Forgotten Realms as a lanceboard).
  • Solve a series of riddles. 
  • Solve the words of a riddle and make up a poker hand’s worth of playing cards based on the clues. 
  • Solve a Tower of Hanoi.
  • Complete a pairs game within a set amount of turns.
There are huge benefits to using real world puzzles as the basis of your own. First, it helps you to develop the puzzle. Even if you add your own twists to the game, you’re not starting from scratch. Second, it aids in player understanding of the puzzle. It is a lot easier to follow the logic of a puzzle if you have prior experience with it or can quickly understand its building blocks. Finally, you can use physical props, which will also help with comprehension while additionally increasing player engagement. 

Take the puzzle out of its original context.

You can increase the challenge of a real world puzzle by re-skinning it so that it’s not immediately obvious what the puzzle is. That way, even players who have prior experience with the puzzle will still go through a process of discovery before that satisfying moment that understanding clicks and they breeze through the solution. Take the Tower of Hanoi example above. While you could totally just have the players solve a literal example of the puzzle to unlock a door, you can instead take the mechanics of the puzzle and build something new out of it. 
I successfully used this puzzle during an adventure by making it the means for the PCs to cross an otherwise impassable chasm. Here’s the set-up:
The PCs arrive at one side of a chasm. The far side is distant enough that they have no means to cross. Along the near side of the chasm are a number of platforms, floating above the plunging descent. They are all different sizes, with the smallest on the left and the largest on the right. There can be any number of platforms, as appropriate to the size of your party.
Stepping onto any of the platforms causes that PC to be trapped on the platform by a magical field which cannot be bypassed in any way. The only way to bring down the field is to solve the puzzle and cross to the other side of the chasm. A control panel on the platform seems to indicate that the PC can move the platform bidirectionally across the chasm, but the controls don’t yet function. A graphic indicator on the control shows the platforms and the PC’s is lit up. The first step to the solution is realising that the other platforms need to be manned by the remaining PCs.
Once the platforms are all manned, they become active. But only the PC on the leftmost, smallest platform finds that they can move their platform. They can move it half-way across the chasm, or to the far side of the chasm. If they move to the far side, the magical barrier remains (all platforms must reach this side for it to vanish). Whichever position they choose, the platform then moves all the way to the right (parallel to the largest platform). The PC on the second smallest platform now finds that theirs can move, but only to the position not currently occupied by the smallest platform.

Chasm Crossing of Hanoi.

This puzzle is not immediately obvious as a Tower of Hanoi. For a start, there’s nothing tower-like about any components. But through trial and error, players can learn that all the same rules apply. The platforms can move between three points. The solution is only reached once all platforms are at the furthest point from where they start. Finally, no platform can move to a position if it would be larger than a platform already in that position. The puzzle can be solved via understanding of a Tower of Hanoi (once one or more players figure out what it is), or the same way that a Tower of Hanoi is normally solved by someone who’s never done it before: through trial and error.

As I mentioned earlier, physical props can help with understanding and engagement. I drew this puzzle out on my chessex mat, using dotted lines to mark the legal positions, and placed cardboard circles along the first dotted line to represent the platforms. My players were allowed to physically move the platforms, with me telling them whenever a move was illegal. 

Tower of Hanoi Solution (this image from Wiki Commons)

Instead of a horizontal Tower of Hanoi, as above. You could stick in the vertical plane and make the platforms into lifts. Solving the puzzle will take the PCs higher (or lower) in the dungeon.

Add twists.

You can add new rules to existing puzzles to increase the challenge level. For instance, I used a pairs game in one adventure. The first twist was, of course, the one described before: a turn limit. The second I added was that every time the PCs failed to find a pair, all the already discovered pairs were also turned back over. The third was that even if the PCs found a pair, it might not be considered a success: the pairs had to be found in the right order.

Solving the puzzle was a matter of finding, and remembering, a certain sequence. In short, it was equivalent to a password or safe combination.

Once again I used physical props for this to great success: I created a pairs game out of card which the players could actually play at my table.

The trick to any pairs game puzzle is in deciding how many turns is a reasonable limit. This becomes harder to assess when permutations like those above are involved. As a general rule, be generous. Your players will waste a few turns just figuring out the rules. Or, you can afford them the opportunity to learn the rules, perhaps via a riddle. Other clues you might want to seed in the dungeon nearby are partial combinations that reveal some of the necessary pair sequence.

Or how about that old classic of simply solving one or more riddles? Can we spice that up? Imagine, for example, a room full of old portraits with a locked door that can only be opened by entering a number sequence via a keypad. The first riddle reveals that the combination can be found under the portraits, but that the order of the numbers will be determined by solving the riddles that follow. Lifting the portraits from the wall will reveal that every single one has a number underneath, though of course a lot of these are not part of the solution at all.

Each time the PCs solve a riddle, they can find its subject in one of the portraits in the room. If the answer to the riddle is “a mountain”, they need to find a portrait with a mountain in it.

For added challenge, consider a situation where the solution to some riddles might be found in multiple portraits. However, all but one of those portraits is actually the correct portrait to go along with either a riddle they’ve already solved (in which case they can immediately eliminate it), or a riddle later in the sequence (in which case they will need to find out all the possibilities for the whole sequence and then eliminate possibilities until only the correct sequence remains).

Another option for spicing up riddles might be for the puzzle to require the PCs to draw the solution. This is no more complex than asking them to guess aloud, but you can get your players to actually do the drawings at the table, adding a fun physical element and perhaps injecting some hilarity into your game depending on the quality of the drawings.

What puzzles have you borrowed for your games? 

And what were your successes and failures? Share your stories in the comments!