Puzzles as Story

From Tony Medeiros

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0653

A Brief Word From Johnn

Hellhole A Good Space Opera

I just finished Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I thought it was a great read. (Note to self, update my GoodReads shelf with this book.)

The story moved along at a fairly quick pace and it kept me interested in the premise, universe, and characters. I’m always a sucker for stories where people start with nothing and have to build up a colony or just survive. If you have read any such books, please send me your recommendations.

The book starts out with a rebel getting defeated by evil nobles in a distant galaxy. The rebel is sentenced to live on a planet that’s just been hit with an asteroid, hence its nickname Hellhole. The rebel tries to survive, build a colony, and get revenge on his cruel oppressors. The book is less about being a survival sim and more about plotting against the bad guys, which was a bit disappointing, but that’s no knock against the authors.

The characters were a bit simplistic, but that worked ok for me with this type of pulp space opera read. I’ll be buying #2 in the series to see how the story develops.

Newsletters Now Published Online Faster

Thanks to feedback from many readers wanting to share, link to, and read the current newsletter online, that’s now happening.

It was previously a Patron benefit to have access to issues online as soon as they’re emailed to you. But I asked Patrons if they minded making the current issue public immediately, available free to all. They said no problem, that’s what their support is supposed to be for, and that’s awesome.

So thanks to Patrons for being cool, and thanks to you for your ongoing feedback, tips, and ideas.

You can find the current issue here.

Speaking of tips, today’s issue covers a Patron request for tips on puzzles. Faster Combat author Tony Medeiros treats us to a nice approach that integrates puzzle-building with storytelling.

So, without further ado, everyone get some gaming done this week, and I hope you enjoy today’s issue of Roleplaying Tips.


Puzzles as Story

Puzzles are unique games within your game that challenge your party’s reasoning and creativity. The best RPG puzzles involve putting things in a certain order while being thematically connected to the adventure.

One of the best puzzles you can use is the ordering story puzzle where you create engaging visual stumpers that draw on the major themes, people, places, and things from your adventure.

In todays Roleplaying Tips, I’ll show you how to craft ordering story puzzles, plus I’ll give you a way to practice and test your newfound puzzle talents.

Choose 4 Story Elements

To create your puzzle, first identify the inspiring adventure cornerstones from your existing module or plans.

Four of the key story elements to identify are:

  • A story theme
  • A person or creature
  • A place
  • An item or thing


To pick a theme, skim the adventure to see what type of tone it sets, or what idea or message is core. A general or more specific theme is fine. Use whichever one sounds more engaging to you. You can choose more than one theme for a richer, more layered puzzle. Horror, mystery, romance, imprisonment, betrayal, revenge, or murder are examples of excellent theme choices.

Person or Creature

For your second story cornerstone, choose a prominent or star character. Review the adventure and choose any figure that drives the story, such as a major protagonist or antagonist. This creature’s personality or actions permeate the story and influence many scenes. For example, a local citizen turned spell-wielding criminal brought to justice by the party seeks revenge when he escapes his specially constructed cell. Or a brilliant but arrogant noble suddenly disappears after finishing the construction of his masterpiece – a trap-filled mansion. Either character makes a great NPC cornerstone for your puzzle.


Next, choose an important location from your story. What makes a location important? It’s one that gets mentioned or visited several times. Major NPCs, clues, or valuable items can be found there. Its history or features draw others – and thus the action or story – in. The bandit’s special cell or the noble’s death trap mansion are excellent location choices to bake into your puzzle.

Item or thing

Finally, choose one key item or thing from the adventure to be part of your puzzle. Like location, make sure this item is featured prominently throughout the story. Look for multiple mentions or uses. Determine why this item is so important. Mundane or magical, make sure it’s a key part of the story. The magic-wielding bandit’s spellbook is ancient and unusual, owing to his sudden ability to cast powerful spells that defeat imprisonment. Or the brilliant noble was so obsessed with time that water clocks or hourglasses make up much of the mansion’s décor – and its deadly traps.

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Choose 4 Puzzle Pieces

To continue creating your story puzzle, identify the following four key puzzle components:

  • Physical vessels
  • Visual clues
  • Ordering
  • Reward

Physical Vessels

First, decide on the physical vessels of your puzzle. What items show or hold the puzzle itself? Choose an item that can communicate large amounts of visual information quickly. For example, statues, paintings, tapestries, and even walls make excellent vessels.

Visual Clues

Next, decide what visual clues to use in your physical vessels. What features on the vessel jump out at you? These are the features the party must interact with by moving, striking, pressing, speaking to, lighting, casting spells into, and so on, to begin solving the puzzle. Statues depict distinct types of people or creatures, while paintings and tapestries may show entire events or stories including battles, great feasts, or journeys. Walls may have imagery etched into them. Such imagery might be intended to send an important message or warning.


Third, decide what type of order your puzzle’s solution requires. What one thing is off about the visual aspects of your puzzle? The party interacts with and re-orders this attribute. Numbering and time are two of the best options.

Numbering is the simplest and quickest choice for visual puzzles. To use a numbering puzzle, simply decide what order the visual clues must be put in. Think of it as getting the right combination on a lock. The mounted busts of monster trophies need to be turned sideways in a certain numerical order – bear first, dragon second, dark elf last.

Time is one of the best ordering types for visual puzzles. Time helps tell a story. For example, the order of a feast is off. Dessert is shown being served first, not last, and some meals look half-eaten early, and full later. The party must re-drape the tapestries in the correct order so the feast more naturally unfolds.

Want to level up your numbering order solution to a time-based one? It’s easy to add this layer. Remember, time helps tell a story. The order in which the hunter defeated each monster thus becomes the correct combination. It’s possible the players may not realize they need to order it for that reason, but if and when they do, it makes the puzzle more engaging.


Finally, finish off your puzzle pieces by selecting one or more fitting rewards. Passage, knowledge, and treasure are the best rewards. For their creative efforts, the party should now be able to enter a new area they couldn’t access, learn something helpful about someone or something in the adventure, or discover hidden wealth or magic.

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Connect Story & Puzzle

With your four story and four puzzle elements selected, it’s time pour them into the puzzle mix. Connect the story and puzzle elements. Create or identify a logical, thematic association. Match up imagery or similar items from your lists of story and puzzle elements. Your goal is to bake story elements inside the framework of your puzzle.

Here are example lists of both sets of elements and how they might connect:

Story Elements

  • Theme: imprisonment
  • Figure: fugitive spellcaster
  • Place: magical prison
  • Item: unique spellbook

Puzzle Elements

  • Vessel: cell bars
  • Clues: runic images etched into cell bars
  • Ordering (time): press the images of sunrise, high noon, sunset, and midnight in that order
  • Reward (knowledge & treasure): cell bars unlock; unlock spell on bars can be copied into any spellbook

Story + Puzzle Elements

  • Imprisonment => cell bars
  • Fugitive spellcaster => runic images etched into cell bars
  • Magical prison => press the bars’ images of sunrise, high noon, sunset and midnight in that order
  • Unique spellbook => cell bars unlock; unlock spell on bars can be copied into any spellbook

You’ve now created and connected eight different story puzzle elements. You’ve created a relevant puzzle that’s inspired by your adventure. This is how you accomplish puzzles as story.

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Clueless? Roll for it!

Players will get stuck on puzzles, so getting a clue is important. Most game systems have some sort of mental ability check to guess, notice, or remember something helpful – to get a clue. Oblige players who ask for and roll this and encourage players to do so if they’re struggling to solve the puzzle.

When giving out these clues, provide either story or ordering clues to solve a particular aspect of the puzzle. Provide a single step to solving the puzzle. Draw upon the story’s key themes, characters, places, items, and events when describing a clue.

For example, you might say, “You remember how the hunter was known for his love of telling and hearing dragon stories at every tavern he visited.” This suggests the dragon trophy bust may be the first that needs to be interacted with in the puzzle.

Or you might say, “You remember that you first jailed him at sunrise.” This suggests the first image to interact with in a sequence is the one that looks like a rising sun on the horizon – the sunrise image.

An Example Puzzle Scenario

Here is an adventure scenario with a puzzle. Can you identify four story elements and four puzzle elements of the puzzle? See below the passage for answers.

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Rayne was a simple cutpurse, eking out something of a life between giant bug killing jobs with her sword and staff-wielding friends.

Hey, it was a start. The sewers were suddenly crawling with them for some reason, and the guard was overwhelmed and uninterested.

But then one night after squishing some giant beetles, Rayne fished a dirty old spellbook out of some rich folk garbage behind the Silver Dove tavern. She’d never cast a spell in her life, but the book helped the arcane letters, shapes, and drawings make sense. She wasn’t cold anymore, her fingers tingled with warmth. Her hunger for food was replaced with a new hunger – for magic.

Some weeks later, she used her newfound magic to quietly break her and her friends into a disgustingly showy mansion. Marc and Ellia Breyeaux’s were minor nobles in poor health and trying too hard. But, they dealt in elven art and had just gotten their hands on a set of warm, silky elven blankets with stories to tell. The blankets were a set of five. Each was said to have woven images from history. Images glowed and vibrated with magical warmth.

Rayne’s book, which she had not-so-elegantly dubbed Talking Trash, told her she had to have them. So she persuaded her friends to help and made it easier for them to agree by shielding them with spells of quiet and shadow while she led them about the haughty place.

They found the blankets soon enough. Bathed in the soft light of the magical cloud chandeliers above, they were draped from the south wall across the statues of birds and sleeping babies. Sky blue cotton and silk trim radiated with magic.

“Perfect,” Rayne exclaimed inside her head, trying not to giggle with excitement. “Okay, let’s get these home,” she whispered to her friends.

She pulled gently on a blanket but it wouldn’t budge. And then another with all her strength. Nothing. No surprise, they were magically protected.

Then she felt a draft. Behind the draped blankets, her friends had found a door-sized outline in the wall. It was just as immovable. The draft was cold, but the near-invisible door had a soft blue tinge and was warm, just like the enchanted blankets. Rayne began to wonder if the two were connected.

Rayne studied the blankets’ images. Left to right, the images on the five blankets did tell a story – but not one that made sense.

Left to right, she saw a man and woman in fine wedding clothes, a newborn in a crib and someone reading it a book, a young couple drinking with friends at a tavern, an old woman with a soft smile and a single tear on her cheek, and five children laughing, playing and chasing after birds.

Each of the blankets also had the outline of an infant-sized hand stitched in silver thread to their bottom right corners.

Rayne placed her hand on the hand stitch of the blanket of the image of the newborn baby – and the entire blanket hummed and lit up in a soft, warm, blue glow. The wall behind the blankets shuddered ever so slightly. “Ohh,” Rayne purred. “I think I’ve got it…”

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Possible story elements include:

  • Themes: thievery, robbery, stealing, breaking & entering, newfound magical talent, cursed magic items
  • Figures: Rayne, Marc and Ellia Breyeaux
  • Places: Breyeaux Mansion, Silver Dove Tavern
  • Items: Talking Trash spellbook, the elven blankets, the secret door

Possible puzzle elements include:

  • Vessel: blankets
  • Clues: images of people woven into blankets, silver-stitched hand outlines
  • Ordering (time): place your hand on the hand shape stitch of each blanket in the order of major life events or aging – 1) meeting, friendship or young love (tavern), 2) marriage (wedding), 3) having a baby (infant in crib), 4) having several children (children playing), 5) old age or widow (old woman)
  • Reward (knowledge & treasure): blankets fall from clasps, secret treasure room revealed

Did you choose different story or puzzle elements? If so, reply to this email and let us know which ones and why you selected them.

Perfect Fit

You’re now ready to use puzzles as story in your game! You’ve learned how to identify and match story and puzzle elements to create engaging and immersive puzzles in your adventures.

Your Tips

What tips do you have for creating story-inspired puzzles in your games? How do you keep them grounded in the key themes, people, places, and things of your adventure? Hit reply and Johnn will share great tips, suggestions, and ideas in the next GM Tip Exchange.

Twelve Villain Archetypes

From Johnn Four

1Elder BeingA survivor of an ancient race and now wants to ruin the PCs’ world. This type of villain is often imprisoned, and uses the PCs to escape. Hello Cthulhu.
2Snubbed SiblingVillain is the brother or sister of a PC. Their evil actions come from feelings of inadequacy, entitlement, or envy of the PC.
3Evil ClownComedic, caustic, killer. Don’t let the makeup smile fool you, this villain plays for keeps and his main goal is to inspire fear. Consider adding elements of the absurd and horrific in equal measure.
4Femme FataleUses sexuality and seduction to get her way. Her motives come from abuse, hunger for power, or revenge against a PC.
5Mad ScientistTapping into our societal abhorrence at playing god, this super-smart villain has dire technology the PCs must counter. Typical stances include insane, eccentric, and bumbling genius turned evil or tricked into doing evil things.
6Power MadThey want more power for its own sake, because of low self-esteem, or to prove something to a PC.
7PsychoticThe villain has two minds. The first lets him brilliantly plan and plot against the world with a good chance his clever plans will succeed. The second is tainted by madness and broken with reality, meaning motives and behaviours are unpredictable and irrational.
8Dark GodAn evil or underworld deity with nefarious plans. Sometimes a demon or fallen god looking for retribution or return to glory. A great villain to spawn cults or evil empires.
9Evil EmpireThe society itself is the villain as the PCs try to survive or defend others against prejudice, oppression, and disregard for life. People are just property for the system to chew up. Give the empire a “face” via oppressive dictator, debased nobility, or gluttonous merchant class.
10Killer FrenemyThe bad guy is an ally who secretly plots against a PC.
11Vengeful OneSpurned or betrayed, the villain now seeks revenge against a person or group formerly close to them.
12NemesisThe villain cannot be overcome through direct means. He’s too powerful, smart, or resourceful. Instead, defeat must come through a secret weakness, such as taking advantage of the villain’s ego or susceptibility to elven metal.


Click here to learn: More information about villain archetypes.