Puzzles Suck

Over a year ago I worked on this series that I called the “Learn From My Mistakes Series”. It was a decently popular series that I wrote on /r/DndBehindTheScreen. However as I look back at it now, there are a lot of things that could have been improved upon in that series. So for the next couple of weeks I will be working on revamping my original articles, and adding a few more articles to the original series. If you are interested to see the original articles and the discussion around them, you can find that here.


“Learn From My Mistakes” Series. Issue 01: Puzzles Suck

That is a pretty bold statement to make as the title of this post. But in my past, whenever I have done a puzzle, it has almost always turned out as a failure. But that is because I was creating my puzzles in a fashion that encouraged errors. I have discovered a new method of puzzle creation however that is much more fluid, and is something you can do on the fly when your players go off the tracks. But first let us examine why the bad puzzles are bad.

Elements of a Poor Puzzle

1. The DM already has a preset solution for the puzzle before the players get there.
2. Solving the puzzle is necessary to advance the quest.
3. Solving the puzzle requires a random element to be satisfied.
These 3 things are what can make a decent puzzle terrible, and let me go through each reason on why.
1. The DM already has a preset solution for the puzzle before the players get there.
This is probably one of the more contentious statements to make, as the allure of many puzzles is that you try and try again until you succeed at the correct answer. The reason why I suggest that you do not have a solution to a puzzle in a game like D&D, is because having only one solution limits you in what you can do. D&D is a game about options, and in a puzzle with only a single solution you limit the players options until they almost have no choice anymore, unless they do exactly what you want them to do. Sounds a lot like railroading doesn’t it? There are 2 solutions to this problem. 1). Have multiple solutions with different avenues of success, or 2). have no solution whatsoever. I’ll go more into the second choice later in my post.
2. Solving the puzzle is necessary to advance the quest.
Another problem with puzzles that tends to go hand in hand with point one is that you make the puzzle a requirement to move along in the story. If the puzzle can’t be defeated then the story grinds to a halt until the party is able to get past the encounter. What makes this worse is when there is only one solution to the problem, your players are very likely to be unable to solve it, thus slowing the game down to a crawl while they try to align the levers in the proper fashion. However if the puzzle is not a necessary component to the quest, not solving the puzzle does nothing to hurt your game, and can instead add some mystery to it. If your players had to leave a dungeon before they could solve the riddle of the black door, they will then be motivated to go back to that dungeon in order to solve the puzzle when they are stronger and smarter. 
3. Solving the puzzle requires a random element to be satisfied.

D&D tends to involve a lot of random numbers as rolling dice is actually a lot of fun. However the danger of this is that puzzles are a component of a dungeon that should have no randomness to them at all. Making the puzzle do random things defeats the purpose of the puzzle, as it makes it impossible to identify patterns. And randomness is not limited to just the puzzle, but also to the skill checks involved. One huge mistake is making players roll perception checks in order to get a vital piece of information that can help them solve the puzzle. By doing this you are allowing there to be a chance that they just can’t solve the puzzle. If there is vital information necessary to the puzzle, and they are not on a time constraint, I would do away entirely with the randomness in skill checks in the puzzle.

My Method of Puzzle Creation

The main thing that sets my puzzles apart from other puzzles is that when I build a puzzle out beforehand to give to my players I do not plan out a solution to the puzzle. This seems very counter intuitive. Why would I design a puzzle without a solution? The reason I do this is because of the free form nature of Dnd. In a an ideal game of Dnd, the players make all of the choices and all of their choices matter. When you create a puzzle with only one solution you limit their choices down to the “correct” choices. However some of the most fun I have ever had as a DM is when my players do something completely unexpected. This was only possible because I had set up the game to allow them to try out their crazy ideas. A puzzle designed with no solution in mind allows the mind to be as free as possible when your players start to come up with solutions for the puzzle. If something plausible comes up, then you should allow it and move on from there. 
But part of the allure of puzzles comes in the fact that they are difficult to solve, and that the players must try multiple times until they are able to succeed at the puzzle. To facilitate this narrative, I do something a little unethical. I fail their first, and maybe their second attempts. If I want to make the puzzle seem like a difficult challenge then they must fail a few times before it starts to seem like a challenge. The problem with the No Solution approach to puzzles, is that you begin to agree with your players when they do start to come up with solutions. So in order to make the encounter more memorable you must fail them a few times, so that they then truly begin to think outside of the box. I don’t always fail them however, if their first attempt is really creative I might allow it just on the basis of creativity. The purpose in failing them is to make things more interesting, and to perhaps use up some of their resources.

Example Puzzles

One thing to note before I begin to list off these puzzles, is that some of these aren’t puzzles in the strictest sense. They are simply open ended encounters that I have not developed a solution for. These can still be considered puzzles because they challenge the mind, and the resources. 
“A chasm separates you from the Duergar assassins firing crossbows from the other side. The remnants of a rope bridge lie on either side of the ravine, and small trees dot each side. What do you do?”
“The Orc captain snarls at you as he grabs a rope hanging from a shaft. He waves his hand and you hear some movement from above as a giant boulder is pushed from the top of the shaft. As the boulder comes crashing down the orc is launched into the air. What do you do?”
“The ancient sword of Duldurill rests on the pedestal. However, any movement of the sword will set off the trap, collapsing the ruins. What do you do?”
“The black door stands before you, taunting you with what is inside. There lie 3 levers, and dozens of small holes where poison darts would presumably come out. What do you do?”
“The room begins to fill with water as the door snaps shut behind you. The water is coming from small holes in the ceiling, and it is rising quickly. What do you do?”
All of these “puzzles” that I invented all have a common theme in “What do you do?”. You are essentially tasking the players with the invention to the problem. For example, I have no idea how they would survive the water trap. But maybe my players will do something crazy, and something that I would have never thought of. Then I might just allow it and make them feel good about figuring it out. If I were instead to say “The only way they could solve this problem is by finding the hidden off switch, which requires a DC 17 perception check” I not only limit my players options in solving the puzzle, but I also limit my own if they can’t find the switch. 
I hope this helped some of you in your efforts on puzzle creation. If you have any questions feel free to ask me. This is not the definitive way to create puzzles, but I find that this method allows me to be much more creative in my puzzles, and also makes for a more interesting encounter for me and my players. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
My next post will be detailing how overpreparing your adventures can lead to some unforseen consequences such as railroading, and methods on how to prep in less time, while prepping for more.

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