This article was first broadcast in Episode Sixty-One on 13th February 2019.
Lennon: Ugh, Ostron! Oh where is he?
Ryu: Something wrong?
Lennon: The lock on the vault is messing me up again.
Ryu: Oh, well, give me a few minutes with it….
Lennon: Wait, there he is! Ostron! Why does the lock on the vault look like an MC Escher painting!?
Ostron: Well, parts of it are in another plane.
Ryu: Oh, now that you mention it, that kind of makes sense!
Lennon: Wait, how does that make sense?
Most people are aware of the major “encounter” types in D&D: fighting monsters, chases, social encounters, and traps. But there’s another category of encounter that can make it’s way into your games: puzzles.
Now, a brief terminology review. Puzzles are usually different from traps because they are designed to impede progress. Traps are usually one shot constructs that do damage to a player or players and are done. Puzzles, on the other hand, may or may not do damage but they need to be solved before the characters can progress.
Puzzles can also vary widely in scale: there can be a puzzling lock that’s preventing a book or a chest from being opened, or there can be some sort of ancient, arcane construction that is missing pieces scattered across an entire continent.
Two other things have to be figured out with a puzzle; urgency and complexity. Urgency is how quickly they need to solve the puzzle. You see this sort of thing in movies and dramatic TV shows all the time: any time someone needs to defuse a bomb, that’s a puzzle with a fairly high amount of urgency.
Complexity is simply how much work is required to complete the puzzle. What that translates to in the game can vary quite a bit and we’ll discuss it in a minute, but the end result is that the combination of scale, urgency, and complexity determine how difficult a puzzle is to complete or solve.
Technically, a locked door that requires a simple Sleight of Hand check to open could be considered one of the lowest complexity puzzles you might encounter. At the other end of the scale, a puzzle with ten or more sites located days of travel to reach and requiring specific artifacts, which are themselves scattered around and have to be both discovered, and matched with their correct site, can easily be the focus of an entire campaign.
The best puzzles usually have a careful and inverse relationship between their difficulty and how much they stall the characters. Puzzles that completely prevent the characters from moving on at all should usually be relatively easy to solve, while ones that may be guarding an optional piece of treasure or a secret passage characters aren’t required to find or use could be much more difficult to overcome. The world-spanning puzzles we just mentioned can have the high amount of effort to solve because they don’t impede the character’s progress very much; the only thing they’re usually preventing is the characters reaching the end, or possibly the final act, of a campaign.
Now we mentioned before that complexity is a difficult thing to determine and that’s because there are two very different approaches to it. One is to make the puzzle totally in-game. That was the case with the locked door; the problem was totally within the game and the solution was also in the game; make a skill check. More complex puzzles of this type simply require more and different skill checks, sometimes made in sequence or requiring multiple types. The criticism these puzzles sometimes receive is that they don’t seem like puzzles; they’re just skill challenges.
At the other end of the scale are real puzzles. These are actual physical mysteries that need to be solved by the players. A simple example of this is if the characters need to piece together a note that was torn up and the DM prints out an actual note on real paper, physically rips it, and gives the fragments to the players to piece back together and read. It can enhance the experience for the players because there are physical items to interact with and it breaks the pattern of rolling dice.
The problem with the real puzzle approach is that it is metagaming in the most literal sense. Solving that puzzle no longer has anything to do with the characters the players have in front of them; they are using their own intelligence and problem solving as real people to solve the puzzle. For relatively simple puzzles, like the torn up letter, this tends not to be a problem because the puzzle isn’t hard. However when the puzzle gets complex it can rip players out of the game.
One trick that can mitigate this is to have players make skill checks or ability saves to gain hints about the puzzle. If they’re trying to decipher a coded message, for example, and they have an actual message printed in code they’re trying to decipher by letter substitution, a character can make an intelligence check and if they’re successful the DM will just tell them what one of the letter substitution is. This tends to work well because the players can work on the problem and physically work with it, but if necessary or if they want to make it a pure character effort, they can use their character’s skills to assist.
Unfortunately the approach very often does not work well with very complex real puzzles. Let’s say, for example, that the DM decides to simulate a complex mechanical lock on a door by presenting the players with a Rubik’s cube. Objectively this might seem cool; it’s a physical puzzle that needs to be solved and it’s something tactile the players can handle. However, the ability to solve a Rubik’s cube has nothing to do with their characters and worse, there isn’t a good way for any player to make a check or save to get help, unless the DM is proficient at solving Rubik’s cubes as well.
Beyond the skill check assistance issue, real puzzles are sometimes detrimental to roleplaying. If, for example, you present the players with a chessboard puzzle, where a bunch of chess pieces are arranged on a board and there’s one move that will both save one side from defeat and win the game for them at the same time, now you’re relying on the chess playing skills of the players. If one player is playing a Kender with an Intelligence of 8 but in real life they win chess tournaments, you now either have the scenario where the questionably intelligent Kender just sat down at a chess board without thinking and solved the puzzle. This can be played off if you’re creative, such as saying the Kender just did it before anyone could stop them and happened to be right, but it may make the player feel cheated that their accomplishment was discarded in the name of roleplay.
So puzzles are a good way to introduce a new aspect to a campaign and get away from chases and combat but you have to be careful that you’re not putting an insurmountable puzzle in the way of players making it through a major part of the story.
Lennon: So you put the ridiculous multidimensional door lock on the vault because we don’t go in there a lot.
Ryu: Well, *I* do, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
Lennon: Yeah, we’ll talk about how you get in to grab that hat on a regular basis some other time. For now let’s get to the scrying pool and see what the listeners have to say.