image I’ve been running my gaming group through a dungeon using In the last session the group came across a really well written puzzle and it got me thinking about the use of puzzles in games. Puzzles can be incredibly fun or incredibly frustrating. From the GM’s perspective, you don’t want to give the players something so easy it won’t feel like they have overcome anything, but from the player’s perspective you don’t want anything that is annoying and obscure in its solution. With this in mind here are 5 things that I think puzzles in tabletop role-playing games should do.

  1. Puzzles should be meaningful and fun
    When a group encounters a puzzle in a game, it should have relevance to the game and be fun. Incorporating a puzzle into a doorlock is fine, so long as it isn’t the 13th one in a row, or if it is then there is a reason for the puzzle to be there. While working on a puzzle or riddle can be incredibly fun and let the players flex different brain muscles, they should fit and be fun for the group to tackle.
  2. Puzzles should be tactile and 3D
    No matter what kind of puzzle you are dealing with, solving it becomes easier when you can visualize it, and visualizing it becomes easier when you can touch it and work with it. Any kind of prop that can be incorporated into the real world will be a blessing to the players. Even if it is just writing down the words of a riddle, seeing it can help players solve it more quickly. Think of this as a good guideline: If at all possible, the players should be able to interact within in a similar way that the characters can. This may be writing numbers on Jenga blocks, making sure you’ve got minis to represent the room accurately, drawing out the symbols, marking symbols onto a completed rubiks cube  in order and then messing it up, or doing a stick figure sketch of the painting that holds the clue and giving it to the players. Whatever it is, if you can give them something to interact with, do so.
  3. Puzzles should be easy
    Gamers are generally fairly smart and enjoy being challenged mentally, but unless your players are in the top-ranks of Mensa and really enjoy mind-bending puzzles, the puzzles you use in game should be easy to figure out. Even if the players solve it in microseconds, bypassing an easy puzzle will probably be more enjoyable than struggling for hours on a very hard one. Clues that are evident to characters (or to the GM) may not be remembered by players, which makes even easy puzzles more complex when used inside of a game.
  4. If puzzles aren’t easy, they should be skippable
    If a puzzle isn’t easy to figure out, it shouldn’t bar the players from moving forward in the game. A complex puzzle on an optional benefit is great. The players should be challenged in order to get that awesome artifact. If the complex puzzle is on a door and the players can’t figure it out, have them make the appropriate skill rolls and checks until it is solved. There is nothing wrong with making players sweat a bit while trying to get through the adventure, but have an escape plan.
  5. Puzzles should be geared towards character, player, or common game world knowledge
    Puzzles in games should be relevant to something the characters know, the players know, or is common(ish) game world knowledge. What do I mean by this? A puzzle that relies on arcane knowledge or cyberhacking shouldn’t be included if there is not mage or hacker type character in the group. A puzzle that relies on knowledge of ancient Byzantine architecture shouldn’t be used if the players don’t know about it. If a puzzle in a world where Ogres have a very unique background relies on information about Ogres, then the players should be fairly familiar with that knowledge. If you are designing a puzzle for your game make sure it has some kind of hook for the group to get the logic behind the puzzle.

Puzzles can be a great addition to any role-playing game, and they have deep roots within the genre. What are some of the best puzzles you have used? What other advice have you got on using puzzles in your games? How pissed would you be if you never found the puzzle I secreted away in this post? There is no puzzle, stop looking!

(Image: Here. / CC BY-NC 2.5)

16 replies
  1. mrtopp
    mrtopp says:

    I’m not sure how this:
    “Gamers are generally fairly smart and enjoy being challenged mentally. ”

    Fits with this:
    “the puzzles you use in game should be easy to figure out.”

    Easy puzzles are, by definition, not a challenge.

    Perhaps you mean that gamers are generally average people (making them of average intelligence), but like to feel smart?

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      @mrtopp – Due to a posting error, and a late night being able to write effectively error, it didn’t go out the way I intended. As it was written, it definitely didn’t make much sense. I fixed it to hopefully clarify my thought, which was simply this: Unless your players enjoy very complex puzzles that require a lot of time to solve, then the puzzles you use should be easy. Everyone enjoys being able to solve a mental challenge easily, especially the smart. It gives people a sense of satisfaction. Players should be “pshawwing” the fact that your puzzle was too easy to solve as opposed to spending hours and having to be told how to solve it, only to find it was something they would have thought of with a slightly different perspective.

      @Lunatyk – Maybe you did. Did you read the instructions I left in it for claiming your prize? 😉

  2. Matthew J. Neagley
    Matthew J. Neagley says:

    I’ll add that if the players devise a solution that is both brilliant and incorrect, only you and your notes ever need know the second part.

  3. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    I do miss the regularity of puzzles in the early adventures.

    Also, a puzzle need not be a riddle or similar technique. Just figuring out how some archaic technology works is a good puzzle.

  4. Patrick Benson
    Patrick Benson says:

    I have an issue with how many “puzzles” in adventures are actually tricks. A puzzle by definition can be solved. It does not mislead you if done well. It may perplex and challenge you, but it does not hide its true nature. Those are called traps.

    So when I play in a game and the GM says “You have to solve this puzzle to move on.” I expect for the characters to have all of the pieces needed in order to solve the puzzle. I expect any risks or dangers to be exposed (not negated) so that I understand the puzzle.

    Yet I have played in so many games where the puzzle was actually a trap. Yes, if I did things in the correct order the “puzzle” would have caused no harm, but if the puzzle is designed to mislead a person on purpose in order to harm that person then it is a trap.

    An example of puzzles would be “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. In Raiders Indy has to put the medallion on a staff of the correct height at the correct time in order to reveal the hidden location of the ark. That is a puzzle. Indy needed all of the pieces and all of the clues in order to solve the puzzle. In Last Crusade Indy has to pass through a series of deadly puzzles in order to acquire the Holy Grail, yet Indy still had all of the clues (headless bodies near the blades, his father’s journal, knowledge of history, etc.) needed to avoid death.

    The Emperor feeding the Rebellion false information in order to lure their forces into attacking the Death Star in “Return of the Jedi”?

    “It’s a TWAP!”

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. My point is that the heroes were misled into solving a puzzle of how to remove the shield protecting the Death Star. All along they were being suckered into a trap.

    My point to all of this? At least the Emperor acknowledged that it was a trap. The rebels were never supposed to succeed. If you are a GM who sets up a trap for the players and calls it a puzzle, do not try to hide your intent behind the line “Well if you guys had solved it it wouldn’t have hurt your characters.” Just say “That was a trap, and I fooled you.”

    I’d much rather be fooled into setting off a trap that kills my character, then to have a “puzzle” that cannot be solved kill my character.

  5. Tabulazero
    Tabulazero says:

    I hate puzzle.

    I think:
    1) They slow the game terribly
    2) They are highly illogical: why did the Lich King spend billions of gp building his dungeon to have it locked with the equivalent of a 5cp padlock whose combination is 1,2,3,4?
    3) They seldomly provide a good opportunity to role-play
    4) Go play Sudoku

  6. Gamerprinter
    Gamerprinter says:

    My only “puzzle” placed in my only published adventure was more a quandry. The party enters a country inn, with innkeeper and wife, beautiful female guest and 3 nefarious male guests. It turns out the country inn is haunted, the innkeeper, wife and guests are all undead (Japanese ghosts in reality). While the ghosts can be “killed” they reform by morning. The party is stuck in an extra-dimensional location and can’t get out until they solve the murder mystery involved with all the ghost guests, the murder weapon is discovered and revealed to need to be destroyed to escape. There’s many clues, but still the resolution may be difficult to identify. If nobody “gets it”, I finally have the beautiful female ghost possess one of the PCs showing the players her death, the murderer and his weapon.

    Once the weapon is discovered, destroyed and the remains of the dead are properly buried – the party can escape the extra-dimensional country inn.

    I don’t do puzzles otherwise in my adventures.

  7. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    I think there are some interesting connections between this article and pedagogical theory, specifically two ideas.

    The first is “multiple intelligences:” some of us think in words, some in pictures, some in abstract relationships of symbols, some in social relationships of people. Teachers are trained to give all of these intelligences the chance to be applied to a given curriculum item (a roleplay is a good interpersonal way to explore history; looking at maps or old artwork is a good visual; and reading is a good verbal way, etc). Today’s orthodoxy on MI is that the ideal lesson will offer something for every different intelligence, though it is acknowledged that that is rarely practical.

    This relates to point 2, about tactile puzzles. It’s not true that a puzzle will be EASIER if it’s visual or tactile (a.k.a. kinaesthetic intelligence), but depending on who you have sitting at your table, some players will find it easier to understand. You may have a bunch of linguistic/logical learners (like myself) who are absolutely fine with having puzzles described. But if someone’s a visual thinker, they’ll be left out, having difficulty manipulating the words and symbols in their head. Giving your players as many media as possible allows different kinds of thinkers different modes of approach to the puzzle. If you’re interested, the eight intelligences identified by Howard Gardner are (in no particular order):
    Interpersonal (with other people)
    Intrapersonal (with yourself)

    I’d be thoroughly impressed if someone could incorporate musical intelligence into some portion of their adventure. Not just background music for mood, but music as a challenge that could reap rewards.

    The other useful idea is Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.” The notion is that if you imagine learning as a “space” (either linear, two-dimensional, three-dimensional, doesn’t matter) there is an area of what people are capable of. In one dimension it might look like this:


    The rest (question marks) is stuff that people aren’t capable of. But on the border of the two is an area called the zone of proximal development, defining tasks that a student (or player) is capable of with the assistance of a more capable guide, or their peers. So we get


    This relates to your points 3 and 5. Ideally, you want to present tasks in the ZPD. If you present something that a player is already capable of, then it’s too easy. If you present soemthing far beyond their abilities, they’ll be totally lost. If you present something in the ZPD, they will manage, with a bit of work. Afterwards, they should be capable of doing it on their own (we call this by a highly technical name: learning).

    Now, in a game there’s no NECESSITY that anyone learn anything, so you can pitch all of your puzzles quite low. But learning is an intrinsically rewarding process. You get that “Ah ha” glow.

    Finding the players’ ZPD is hard, and I couldn’t go into it without discussing assessment techniques. To some extent GMs assess their players all the time, trying to figure out what their interests are. But if you’re including something you don’t usually use, like a puzzle, it might be a bit harder to guess. Perhaps then it’s best to use easy puzzles. But you can certainly consider player/character knowledge as acquired capabilities (I know they know who the current dynasty is, but they don’t know the geneology, so I’ll make the riddle a pun about the dynasty name, and not about the great-great-uncle that I mentioned once in the first session and totally matters to my game-world history but no one else cares…)

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