Monday, July 5, 2010


One of the most interesting (and most challenging) aspects of being a DM deals with the creation of dungeons. Dungeons as a title trademark have to be exciting mixes of combat and traps (and a couple great treasures as well) to confuddle both the brawny and the intelligent characters in a party. And consequently one of the best things about designing dungeons, are designing the puzzles.
There is nothing better than creating a puzzle that sets your players wondering, a puzzle that hearkens back to the dungeons in Legend of Zelda video games is just so satisfying!
And yet creating such encounters are not easy, typically I draw my inspiration from games or obscure fantastical literature.
I once created an entire puzzle dungeon, for several PC's who were willing to do away with combat for a while. Creating that dungeon really challenged my DM skills and forced me to question just what line DM's should draw when puzzling their players.
There are three main types of puzzles that I have observed:
1. Word puzzles- I think every DM out there has thrown a riddle at their PC's now and then. Usually these are employed to get past doors, or nasty creature guards
2. Physical- This is when you shoot your characters out onto a giant grid and they have to figure out that to move safely they must follow a certain pattern. Or they must touch the statues in the correct way to open a door
3. Situational- These puzzles are the most complex, for they usually role-play based. Often you have an entity who wants something and the players must determine what exactly that thing is
I'm always looking for new puzzles and traps to use in my campaigns, if you all have any suggestions of where to look, or want to share your all-time favorites, the floor is open :)


  1. I wrote a series of posts about puzzles and their origins in text adventures. You can check them out here.

    The most important point about puzzles, to me, is that solving them can help the party but must not be a block to their progress. There should usually be a more difficult and costly way around the puzzle.

  2. I've often used actual, physical puzzles - like tangrams or a think called a SOMA cube. The players have to actually find the pieces in the dungeon (or during a campaign) then put the thing together correctly at the table in real life. Most seem to enjoy this. You can find cheap puzzles at dollar stores now.

  3. I recently sent out a feedback request to the players in one of my campaigns and one of the things I got was a request for more "in-game riddles" -- stuff that makes sense in-game seems to belong to category #3 -- and I find them just as hard to invent as you do. :(

    What I've used a few times is murder mystery and intrgigue style setups. Step one is to make sure the party doesn't have access to spells that bypass the riddle (or must pay a significant price or perform a significant other service).

  4. The older (pre-1987) TSR adventure modules have many of the best mental and physical puzzles...I'd suggest reading them if you can find them (on-line or used) for good examples of #1 and #2.

    Film and literature isn't very good (in general) for those types of puzzles as they are designed (i.e. "authored") for the protagonists to solve, and in practice I find players will seldom "think like you want them to think." However for SOCIAL puzzles (the role-playing ones or "situational" ones as you describe them) film and literature can provide many inspirations for providing scenarios designed around tough choices. Many dramatic stories are designed specifically around having to make difficult moral or mutually exclusive decisions, and the choice one makes can actually create the over-all theme of the story (i.e. it gives the players the opportunities to address the premise in a moderate to strong fashion determining what their game is "about").

    Regarding the latter, you might check out the essays and writing of Ron Edwards, game designer. He has a lot of good things to say on the subject.
    ; )

  5. Here's the one of mine that stumped reddit's best riddlers:

    A Vamian flame, burning bright. Out of mirror, but in sight.

    (Answer: "Pyre" is a synonym for "Flame". Thus, a Vampire.)