My Secret Ingredient For Making Great Puzzles

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1204

A Brief Word From Johnn

Think too small and think too big. We’ve got a critter making a nest under our deck. We can’t see it because it’s found a good crack to inhabit. But we can hear it. It’s chewing something. Leaves maybe. Paper perhaps. The bones of some poor victim, most likely. Or it could merely be a cat that confiscates dice.

The tiny dire creature’s lair

But as we bear every last inch of modern moon-technology to summon this dire beast from its lair to teleport it to a different land where its folk party down all day, it’s reminding me of how the small stuff could ruin a character’s day.

Too often we get tunnel vision and make our weakest foes whatever the monster guide says. But a well-placed fire ant hill, a family of curious yet cunning rats, or a persistent swarm of mosquitoes could drive a party of heroes back to the tavern for stiff drinks.

Likewise, when contemplating our worlds, we fall into the GM trap of realism, which inevitably shrinks our thinking and results in logical but uninspired ideas.

Instead, for villain plans, campaign ideas, or even the scope and impact of your setting’s history, we should think infinitely. We should think as big as possible and silence the inner critic screaming “that’s not possible!” at us. Better to have an idea too big and hammer it into shape than to limit imagination and only ever have small ideas.

Thanks little demon under the deck for reminding me to have more fun by thinking bigger and smaller.

Speaking of world-building, today I have a tip for you that’s been in my brain for ages. I’ve hinted at this in the past, but never really explained my thinking on how to use our campaign setting to craft awesome puzzles. So today, at last, I share how we can use our worlds for gameplay in a way you might not have thought about before. Let’s begin!

My Secret Ingredient For Making Great Puzzles

Why Have a World For Your Game?

In a monster building course I’ve just started filming for Platinum Wizards of Adventure, I put this in one lesson and promised to unpack it later:

Your Setting serves as one or more dimensions in your puzzles.

Here’s the screenshot for a bit more context:


So you know those dungeon puzzles we love?

And Room II: Roleplay or Puzzle?

And our quest for great dilemmas to challenge players?

I’m basically saying that puzzles are the main reason I love world building because our settings can serve up material answers to all those questions.

So today let’s dive into this further and please allow me to explain what I mean by:

Setting = Puzzles

Graphic of section divider

What’s a Game World Good For?

A world built to sufficient detail for your GMing style grants you several boons:

Boon I: A Stage

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”

– Bill Someone

Our setting gives us a platform for our campaigns. A firmament. Good stories have a location. And our world gives us thousands.

Boon II: Detail

Is it red or blue? Bigger than a d30? How close are the PCs with it to Mount Doom?

Our world gives us these surface level details with which to paint our adventures. Further, our world gives us an instant bundle of details via its genre, themes, and tone signals.

For example, Duskfall is my sword & sorcery homebrew world where Conan meets Greyhawk. It’s got spikes of high fantasy. Every corner, alley, and shadow threaten. And it cradles wealth beyond an emperor’s wildest dreams deep within its warrens.

From that we can surmise all kinds of detail like what kind of game systems it might be suitable for, what might be on equipment lists, and what kinds of stories gameplay might tell in this place.

Boon III: Puzzles

Topping my list of world building boons, we use our setting’s details to fabricate great logistic, plot, and encounter puzzles.

GM: “By your fluttering candle, you gently unravel the delicate scroll. Scrawled in collassai are runes that read:

“The vile eyebeast guards its fire. A giant of storms clutches the air. Into Malgordia’s goblet he does conspire. So that Gorgamol may ascend his eternal stair.’

“So based on those clues and using logic and deduction guys, how tall is that gnome at the Shady Inn?”

Those clues don’t have to land out of thin air. Malgordia is a known villain. The giant’s sent two storms across the party’s path already. And while the PCs don’t know much about eyebeasts, three sages in Duskfall know where the creatures prefer to lair and what legends say about them.

Plot Puzzles

The above is a good example. Prophecies, clues to gather up seven parts of a rod, and any problem that imposes story structure. If we take a step back and think about it for a moment, every monster , culture, bit of lore, and Lego piece in your setting is grist for the subject matter of your puzzles.

This is why I think puzzles are the best reason to have a world and build one ourselves. Puzzles are inherently fun for many players. And skinning the puzzle to our setting makes our adventures feel wondrous indeed!

Encounter Puzzles

It’s time to rub our hands together and cackle with glee, as we bring in traps and heavy artillery.

Worlds give us a way to explain the existence of traps and hazards we place into encounters as cool challenges. Think of it like “lore for dangers” or backstories for traps, heh. We’re tying our setting, game mechanics, and story together. A grand unification.

Normally, funhouse puzzles present a tough corner case. Boards where the characters must become the chess pieces, avoid the reverse-gravity perpetual falling teleportation above spikes traps, or step into the toothy statue’s gaping mouth.

But when we use our world to tie the room together, we get magic. We answer questions like:

  • What is its Origin Story?
  • How do we signal this in advance to build exciting anticipation?
  • How do we use it for best effect in our adventure and encounter designs?

Logistic Puzzles

We’ve arrived at my favorite part of my favorite world boon! Logistic puzzles. This type uses constraints imposed by our setting to present interesting challenges.

For example, if you give the grimlings blood after midnight they become cursed and rampage. The dungeon has no sense of time. And so a poorly-timed successful bite on a tasty player character turns a romp into a near TPK.

This constraint that our world has placed in awesome fashion into the PCs’ path now presents our players interesting choices. And I think that is a high compliment to any GM technique.

Roll Your Own

I cherish the Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Planescape, and other setting books on my shelf.

But I have to say, the satisfaction I get from cooking delicious puzzles using juicy ingredients from a world I carefully gardened gives me tremendous satisfaction. That’s my answer to, “Why have a world?” World-based puzzles make GMing more fun at every game!

That’s it for this week’s newsletter.

If you want to chat with fellow RPT GMs about today’s tips or ask me questions, join the conversation here at my forum.

Johnn Four

Have more fun at every game!