A Nice Tip On Adventure Puzzles

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0963

When I first started GMing I used the kind of puzzles that seemed arbitrary and quirky. After a few years these began ruining the fun because they became too out-of-place and broke our sense of disbelief.

Now don’t get me wrong. A chess board puzzle that zaps you for stepping on the wrong square is a fun puzzle. But for me and my groups over the years we needed good reasons for why that exists in the castle.

And the insane wizard shtick got repetitive fast.

Another problem with puzzles was raised recently by RPT readers. Some hated a puzzle suggestion I made. Some loved it.

I believe every game master sits on a preference spectrum of puzzles.

On one end you have the point of view that puzzles should only challenge the characters. Roll dice to solve these puzzles.

On the other end of the spectrum you have GMs who just love to challenge the players. It’s not the character’s intelligence, experience, and knowledge being tested, it’s the players’ puzzle-solving skills.

Characters on one end. Players on the other. And here I am stuck in the middle again.

I like puzzles that entertain the players but are grounded in the roleplay of the characters. For example, there was a written puzzle in my Murder Hobos campaign. The player whose character couldn’t read asked for the puzzle to be read aloud. Cool. The player still helped solve the puzzle based on his skills, but there was a nod to character and roleplay.

You might be ok with puzzles whose existence makes no sense. And you might be more on the player or character end of the puzzle spectrum.

When I read the following tip on DM David [The Grand Campaign, Dungeon Master Gear, Fourth Edition D&D, and Other Reactions From the Comment Section], a blog I like to read, it meshed with me and spoke to these issues:

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The Grymlorde™ offered a good perspective on puzzles.

“I like to think of puzzles more like doorways to secret levels, side-quests, and Easter eggs. You can get through the adventure without having to solve the puzzles but you miss out on the best treasure, the best experience, the ‘truth’ and so on.

The worst puzzles are the ones where the adventure fails if you fail to solve the puzzle. Which means that the mandatory puzzle must be fairly easy to solve so that everyone has a good chance of finishing the adventure because some people are really good at solving puzzles (e.g. my wife) and others are terrible at it (me).”

I love the Easter Egg approach. It allows the story to contain all kinds of puzzles. And solving puzzles gets players rewards. But such puzzles do not ruin my sense of disbelief or adventure designs.

For example, perhaps the King’s son loves chess. So the King had a large chessboard made into the floor of his son’s room. What only the King and the undead spirit of the builder know is that under one of the board squares is a secret compartment with a chest of gold and incriminating documents.

Next time you whip up an adventure, think about what Easter Eggs you could drop in that make sense to your world and story.