How To Turn Combat Into Clever Puzzles

How can we turn combat into fun and challenging puzzles? Here are three ways.

RPT GM Micah asked me about how to turn combats into deadly puzzles. Great question! First, let’s start with….

What is a Puzzle?

In the context of RPG battles, I define puzzles as problems that test player knowledge and ingenuity, and can be solved via specific character actions.

That last part is key to the whole thing for we game masters (not wee game masters, who tend to get short with me). “…solved via character actions.”

This implies that any old character action won’t be a solution. Therefore, my #1 tip for you today is to design combats that can’t be won through the usual ways, such as fireball, the front line grind, or a back-stabbity stab stab.

When we remove options that could solve a combat, we begin crafting a true puzzle.

With this in mind, here are three ways we can turn combats into puzzles.

#1 Give Foes Weaknesses

In this puzzle type, players must figure out attacks and actions that work against a specific foe weakness, otherwise the combat will be unwinnable for them.

If a character can target a weakness, there’s a chance to do more damage, knock a foe out of battle before the mega damage comes, apply a hindering condition, or otherwise hobble an opponent.

Think Lock & Key here (hat tip to Sojourner’s Awake). The lock is the weakness. The right type of attack or action is the key. For example, Dust Elementals in my world of Duskfall are vulnerable to water.

The puzzle for players then becomes figuring out the lock and key for their foes. Some foes might even have multiple keys.

To make this puzzle work though, we gotta make the foe(s) too difficult to defeat through traditional approaches. We could add immunities, crank up the armor class and hit points, or triple movement rates so foes keep running away to fight another day.

The biggest lesson I received from building the Wizard of Combat program was that the best lever we have for GMing awesome combats comes during the Design Phase. Great combats are made before we ever roll for initiative!

And giving foes weaknesses is a perfect example. We decide on the lock and key, and then make other options too much squeeze for the juice, thus creating a cool combat puzzle.

For example, Dust Elementals on Duskfall are immune to many things, such as weapon attacks. Swords slash right through them. And the winds these things produce repulse ranged attacks and most attempts to get close. However, liquids gum them up, slow them down, and harm them.

#2 Give Foes Strengths

Likewise, give foes attacks that seem to work particularly well against a PC or the party. This is like a reverse Lock & Key where players must figure out how to protect their characters weaknesses.

We can stack this with the first tip to create a colossal cunning combat challenge:

How do I discover my foe’s weakness and use it against them, while learning what their strength is so I can avoid that?


How do I discover my foe’s weakness and use it against them, while learning what my weakness is so I can prevent exploitation of that?

#3 Create Clever CombatScapes

The term CombatScape comes from my Faster Combat course and it represents the terrain, environment, and hazards of the battlefield.

CombatScapes become puzzles in how players choose to use them to their advantage — or prevent foes from doing the same.

For example, waterfalls are a nice hazard puzzle. At the bottom, their mist blocks line of site and makes surfaces wet, and drowning poses a threat. At their top, combatants can be pushed over them, dragged into currents, and have their movement blocked. Plus, the deafening noise can hinder communication, sound spells, and so on.

To turn CombatScapes into puzzles, we apply Lock & Key thinking to the battleground. We add features that nerf standard character actions or bolster foes, forcing players to think outside the combat box.

For example, I might stage a combat encounter in a ruined arena. The terrain is old sand and debris. When the party fights dust elementals here, I give the creatures boons like regeneration, bigger size, or more health, because they can suck up the sand and incorporate it. Further, the creatures can pick up the debris and hurl it at characters as a free action just by moving over it.

Sale Price Ending

If you enjoyed the tips today and want to learn how to design amazing combats that take half the time while telling twice the story, check out my Wizard of Combat online program.

I’ll be taking the program out of beta next year, and changing the price to full retail at that time. So you can get a great deal on it right now.

Have more fun at every game!

P.S. When you are ready, here are +4 vorpal ways I can help you with your campaign:

+1 Take the Free GM Organization Challenge
Stop the confusion and frustration of not having what you need to prep and run games at your finger tips. Become an organized GM in just one week:
Enroll at no charge here and start getting organized.

+2 Use Campaign Logger to Make Prep & GMing Easier
With features like automagic tagging and instant linking, use my web app to make logging sessions and prepping campaign details quick and easy:
Get your unlimited time free trial here.

+3 Get the Demonplague (with 62 5-Star Ratings so far)
A complete level 1-20 campaign D&D 5E adventure path that offers intense roleplay, sandbox and hexcrawl play, cunning combats, and fiendish monsters.
Click here to see more details and to order.

+4 Get More GM Loot
Visit the Roleplaying Tips DriveThruRPG store, or browse books and courses to level up your GMing at the store.

Join a private community with Johnn