"Hmm," Vinland said, looking up at the inscription in the stone with his arms folded.
"Hmm?" Halfgard panted, rounding on his companion. "We've been down here for hours, and that's all you can say?"
"Yes," Vinland said, crossing the room to a small altar worked into the stone. He knelt before it, and rested his hands on the grooves in a traditional pose of prayer. There was a click, and the stone shifted, turning on an invisible axis. Halfgard stared at the corner, the stone fitted so smoothly he couldn't even see the seam.
"Where did you go?" he shouted at the wall.
"I'm inside the vault," Vinland's muffled voice said. "Go to the other altar. It looks like it moves the same way."
Halfgard stalked across the expanse, snarling as he snatched up his ax. Deep down, though, he was glad he'd brought Vinland along. These ancient tricks and misleading locks were his specialty.
|Well it seems obvious, now that you've pointed it out.|
To Puzzle, Or Not To Puzzle?
Puzzles are almost a tradition in fantasy RPGs. They show up in other genres, of course, but from the riddle to enter the Mines of Moria, to every dungeon in Legend of Zelda ever, we're almost expected to have a puzzle or two in our fantasy games. Ancient riddles to prove one's worth, a tricky lock that can't just be picked or brute-forced open, or even something involving repositioning mirrors or activating occult sensors with the proper spells and rituals are something most players are used to seeing.
As a DM, however, you may run into a problem when a puzzle pile drives your pacing, and leaves your players feeling frustrated instead of challenged.
|All right guys, I've got an Intelligence of 20, and no ideas. Open to suggestions, here.|
If you want to make sure that puzzles work in your game, I'd recommend keeping the following in mind.
Tip #1: Have Mechanical Options Attached To It
Our characters are capable of a wide array of feats that we, as players, are not. Too often when a dungeon master plops a puzzle down on the table, though, they just expect the players to solve it using their own wits and experience. The same thing often happens with characters who have high social attributes attached to players that don't... if the character might have the ability to make a connection or recall a useful piece of knowledge, make sure the player gets to roll for it.
|Can I please just roll for this?|
These rolls can take literally any form you can think of. For instance, if there's a riddle attached to the puzzle, ask if there's a myth that plays into it that might give some insight with a Knowledge (Religion) check. If it's wordplay related, or written in another language, ask for a Linguistics check in order to get a clue. Maybe it's something as simple as a high Perception DC to spot the moving parts, or just using Spellcraft to try to understand the matrix of the magical lock. Whatever you choose to use is up to you, and will change for your puzzle and your party, but if they can't just dope it out on their own make sure the bone you throw them is due to their character's attributes and roll successes, rather than because you got tired of waiting.
Tip #2: Provide An Alternative Way Forward
What can make puzzles so frustrating is that they often represent a solid block that you need to solve in order to progress. If you can't actually solve this puzzle, then everything grinds to a halt. That sort of thing might be fine for a video game, where you can only program the one path forward, but if you're a dungeon master you should come up with at least one alternative. More is nice, but try to have at least one.
You could make it harder, tough to find, or a lot more dangerous if you want, but your party shouldn't be left standing there staring at a secret word find for half an hour because none of them have figured out the proper answer for it.
|Look, I've run the numbers. The shadow portal is just going to be less frustrating, even if it kills us.|
If they can't solve the riddle, though, make sure they have some alternative path forward. If the wizard wants to shadow walk past the physical barriers and teleport the party into the crypt, let it ride! If the rogue wants to sneak in through the collapsed chambers beneath the necropolis to try to come in underneath, make that an option, too. Heck, if the sorcerer can mold the stone out of the way, or the barbarian's adamantine great ax can hack through the barrier, let them do that instead!
But make it clear that while these alternative paths might very well work, there may be increased risks. Spirit guardians that can attack those in the shadow realm, communes of ghouls who've made their homes in the ancient tunnels, or just traps and fail safes that get triggered when someone tries to brute force their way past the actual locking mechanism. It's still a way forward, but it comes with problems.
Not problems the group can't overcome, or something that's meant to force them onto a single rail... just an added difficulty that will have to be handled.
Tip #3: Make The Puzzle Matter
Too often puzzles end up falling into the same category as random encounters. They're not meant to add to the lore, or to increase the atmosphere; they're just a challenge that needs to be overcome. Like a non-lethal version of a trap.
But they can be so much more.
|The riddle of the iron serpent! I remember my master told me about this one...|
Lastly, Make Sure Your Players Like Puzzles
This one should go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway. If your players don't like puzzles, it's probably not a great idea to try to win them over by making them solve your puzzle. Read the room, and if your table only solved the puzzle grudgingly because they felt like they had to, then it might not be a great thing to include going forward.
If you just want to add some variety to your dungeons, and to make things feel lived-in, you'd be better off grabbing a supplement like 100 Detailed Things To Find in a Dungeon. With luck your players will enjoy your puzzles more if you keep the above three tips in mind, but like any other element of a game, don't include it if you're the only one who finds it fun.
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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!
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