Ask the gamemasters

William Wiese asks the GMs, “I’ve been trying to think of different ways to implement puzzles into the game and to find some that are not riddles.”

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Puzzles are tricky beasts, William. And thanks for the question; it’s a good one.

Tricky bit #1

My tips below will assume your group is ok with using players’ intelligence and knowledge to solve in-game puzzles. This is often a sticky point, and if you are adamant about PCs only using in-character intellectual abilities then my advice might not help.

For example, you might offer a math puzzle, but the PC might have no character points invested in any kind of math or science skills, and would therefore be math illiterate. In my game that’s ok as we all enjoy solving puzzles and using our real world minds to solve them, even if the PCs technically do not have the ability or knowledge.

Tricky bit #2

Another gotcha involves justifying the existence of the puzzle. Does it make sense to the plot, NPCs and setting? My tips will assume whatever implementation you decide for the puzzle types you offer players works well in your campaign. For example, why would a wizard put a math puzzle to lock a special door? In my current campaign, that would be a good option because other than addition or subtraction, most people other than merchants and engineers cannot solve math problems and puzzles. Therefore, a learned NPC could get away with a math puzzle as a lock, secure because only a rare few could hack it.

I’ve read modules and heard of campaigns where puzzles are used in illogical ways that do not accomplish their purpose, such as securing a portal, disguising the location of something important or acting as proof of faction membership. A frequent justification for puzzle use involves crazy wizards, evil NPCs setting up obstacle courses and challenges for perverse pleasure, and fey having fun with mortals.

These implementations become flimsy and trite after awhile, so just a word of caution. Do not let the desire to use a puzzle ruin the integrity of your campaign. Employ puzzles only when they make sense, accomplish their in-game purpose and do not stretch players’ sense of disbelief.

My suggestions below only offer puzzle ideas and not ways to implement them sensibly in your campaign. I’ll leave that part up to you, based on your group’s preferences.

Visual puzzles

The players must look at the puzzle to solve it. You can find lots of these kinds of puzzles at book stores. Go to the games section and flip through various books there to see what inspires you. Here are a few examples of visual puzzles that translate well into gameplay:

Hidden object games

Hidden object pictures are my favourite type of visual puzzle. These play out like Where’s Waldo puzzles. Players must find an object cleverly drawn and hidden in a picture. I have a few of these books, and gameplay is simply handing the picture to the group and they must find the hidden object:

I recommend increasing the challenge by making a puzzle of what object the players must find on the page, as most of these types of puzzles have multiple hidden items per drawing. For example, say a lion is embedded in a painting with several hidden animals in it. Google for a poem or riddle about lions, then offer the verse as the clue about what animal the players must find in the picture. The picture in-game could be a painting, mural, scroll or design on just about any item. Pressing on or naming the correct animal opens the gate, pleases the King or does whatever you need a successful answer to do.

To add even more challenge, penalize the PCs for a wrong answer. This pressures them to get it right the first time, else they can spend all day finding and testing all objects hidden in the picture.

That brings us to an alternative version of hidden object puzzles where players must identify all items disguised in the drawing to solve the puzzle. Players might be given a list of items to spot, or just be told to find everything and stop when convinced they’re done. Missing one or more hidden items fails to solve the puzzle or causes a penalty, such as damage per item missed or restricted entry to certain party members only.


Mazes make good visual puzzles. I do not like GMing mazes in the standard way, and do not recommend any GM maze their players either, as the mapping task soon becomes tedious and locks non-mappers out of gameplay. Instead, get a book of mazes and try two alternative ways of running them.

Maze option one: plot your path. The PCs are presented a maze on paper, as a painting or what have you. They must trace their way out. You might allow a limited number of restarts then the puzzle shuts off for a period of time or some other penalty occurs, or you could penalize dead-end routes with an encounter.

For example, the PCs come upon a locked door with a maze pattern on it. Hand players a maze from your book of mazes or a printed downloaded maze. Tell them they must trace a finger through the successful route. Getting stuck in a dead end sounds the alarm and summons guards or magically summons a guardian. Players can study the maze for as long as they want, but once they touch it and start tracing their path, they cannot remove their finger or it counts as a failed attempt. Give players a pen, work with a copy of the original maze, and have them draw a continuous line to represent the route their finger takes.

Maze option two: guided walkthrough. One PC can see the maze from above. Perhaps they are locked in a cell with a window, or are in an observer’s booth. The other PCs are on the ground at the entrance of the maze. The guide PC must talk their party members through the maze. Put encounters and traps along false paths. The guide can only offer his teammates verbal commands, and the teammates cannot see the maze pattern and can only traverse within it.

Brain teasers

I have a 2006 calendar of daily brain teasers. About 1/3 are of the visual puzzle variety. And many of these are translatable into interesting gameplay. For example, there are a couple of jump-the-peg puzzles where the object is to reduce the number of pegs to one by jumping pegs over each other into empty slots and removing jumped pegs.

For your puzzle, you might offer a lock where the PCs are offered buttons to push as the pegs. When a button gets pushed, other buttons pop up in positions where that button could “jump” to, and players push the desired destination button. Buttons that get jumped over automatically depress themselves, leaving only remaining “pegs” as popped up and pressable. This push lock type puzzle opens when only one button remains popped up.

You could theme a whole dungeon or area like this, by offering the same button lock puzzles on important doors (from experience, it takes a few tries to get good enough to solve the puzzle right the first time each time), and then by offering different configurations. My brain teaser calendar offers a triangle pattern and a single line pattern.

Check out this page for lots of great patterns.

Other brain teasers in the calendar include spotting things in optical illusion puzzles and pattern puzzles. Shop around in used bookstores for brain teaser books, or look for brain teaser and puzzle desktop calendars in January when they’re discounted.

Mechanical puzzles

Game stores abound with different types of physical puzzles. Even Dollar Stores and Wal-Mart carry cheap puzzles like this.

Ring puzzles require players to figure out how to disentangle or connect rings. Perhaps a chain bars the entrance to a vault and the chain is connected by rings that can be disconnected if puzzled out correctly.

Got a Rubik’s Cube stashed in a basement box? That makes a nice Cube of Force, or key or planar travel device. Offer players solutions and then have them put the cube into certain patterns to achieve various outcomes. Part of the puzzle comes from learning what patterns produce what results. When the cube gets used under duress, you impose time limits to create a desired pattern, else the PC’s turn is delayed or lost.

Other puzzles can work in the same way, such as box puzzles, rope puzzles and slider puzzles.

Last campaign I used a block puzzle with success. 6 rectangular wooden blocks with notches in them could be put together to form a cube. Players first had to quest for each wooden block, spread and forgotten throughout the region in various lairs, vaults and possessions. One piece was in a shaman’s headdress, for example, and the PCs managed to first become allies then fulfill a quest to get the block from the shaman. With all pieces recovered, the PCs then had to figure out how to assemble the cube, which then had to be presented in the right location to unlock the entrance to an ancient inter-dimensional prison.

Math puzzles

Sequences and patterns of numbers make good puzzles. Abstract one level further so the PCs must work with numbers of *things* instead of just pure numbers to solve the puzzle.

For example, on the altar of an elven god of war is a picture of goblin heads, hobgoblin heads, orc heads and gnoll heads, with these numbers underneath: 1 2 4 8 _. If the PCs place 16 heads of any of those creatures on the altar then the altar’s power gets unlocked.

Math puzzles also make good lock combinations, but if word spreads about what number the solution is, then thieves and interlopers need only remember the number and not have to figure out the math problem. Perhaps a better lock involves randomly changing math puzzles.

Sudoku puzzles offer interesting opportunities. First, the PCs must solve the puzzle. Next, the completed puzzle could be a clue or map. For example, the center squares of the solved grid might offer coordinates of the McGuffin. Or, in a room filled with traps, the completed puzzle shows you what tiles to step on – just follow the odd numbers to the door across.

Sages and scholars might offer up math puzzles at fairs or as contests, perhaps as a test of admittance into their orders. Could be a pompous sage wants to prove he is smarter than everyone and offers a math puzzle in public and challenges someone to solve it.

Math is a language. Engineers would use math in their normal plans, creating natural puzzles for the PCs to figure out without the aid blueprints. For example, a treasure might need the central focus of sun energy from four pyramids each of which is a mile apart. But the land between the pyramids is empty desert. Then the PCs realize from exploring a pyramid that sand has half buried the structures over time. Armed with new numbers to input into their equations, the group finds the exact centre spot and digs precisely 74 feet down to find the glorious treasure, which is actually the entrance to a pristine but well-trapped and magically guarded tomb.

If your mind did not wander during geometry class like mine did, then you can use natural math and design calculations to become puzzles for mathematically inclined players.

Word puzzles

As a word nerd, I highly recommend this class of puzzles to you. You can abstract words to create puzzles two or more layers deep, or just go with a single dimension puzzle.

For example, I once ran a crossword puzzle as an adventure. The PCs first picked up the clues during the investigation of a murder. “1 Across: dungeon.” “3 Down: Abyssal resident.” Each clue was left by the murderer as a calling card. Some clues were left in locations, others left on victims. With all clues in hand, the last tid bit found was the empty crossword puzzle for the players to fill out. A gap along the border of 1 Across was first assumed to be a DM printer glitch. Once the puzzle was filled in, one of the players realized the puzzle was a dungeon map, and the entrance was at 1 Across. The clues also revealed the contents of rooms and corridors. The crossword puzzle was more of an abstract map, and not to scale, but the players followed it easily enough. Thanks to all the clues, they could plan their route and engage encounters forewarned.

Overall, the premise of an insane serial murderer using a crossword puzzle as a dungeon map stretched belief a bit. But it was a fun enough premise to play out.

Other word puzzles can offer the clue to a magic item activation key or entrance password or be a clue to an NPC or location. You can find a variety of word puzzle types in those cheap puzzle magazines at the super market.

Logic puzzles

These puzzles offer a tantalizing way to combine investigation with mind bender. The PCs gather up clues and facts, then start sorting things out logically once enough information becomes available. For tips on this type of puzzle, see Alex Harms’s article, Use Logic Puzzles to Develop Plots and Stories.

Hopefully these ideas help, William. I think your best best is to browse puzzle sites, books and magazines and use what inspires you, with the tips above and below for usage suggestions.

Mike, over to you….

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

I have to admit that my views on puzzles and conundra of other kinds have changed in recent years, from a perspective in which Johnn’s advice represents the height of wisdom to one in which it’s just a starting point.

The catalyst for that change was a protracted discussion with a former player of mine about metagaming and how bad it could be for a game – perhaps “protracted moaning session” would be closer to the truth.

As is my way, when confronted with something, I immediately started to look for ways to use metagaming to the game’s advantage. Some of the results have manifested in the way in which I design campaigns, which I have discussed many times before – The Persuit Of Perfection five-part article and Scenario Sequencing being good starting points if you’re interested.

But another aspect of the gameplay that’s been affected is the way I handle puzzles.

My advice: Since it’s the players who have to solve the puzzles, and not their characters, aim your puzzles at the players.

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that…

Step 1: Devise a fitting puzzle

This is the umbrella under which all of Johnn’s excellent advice fits. I don’t think I could improve on it, so I won’t try; but I do think I can extend it a little bit.

Puzzles as described by Johnn tend to be used as keys or combination locks. A third way that they can manifest is as tests or trials – a way of saying “only the learned may pass” or “only the nimble” or whatever. The big trick is converting the restriction on the players scope of activity that you want to impose into a challenge of some kind.

Thinking of your puzzles in this way greatly increases their scope within the game. For example, the characters might have to figure out that the staff held by a statue on the far side of the castle/dungeon, and who will only yield it to someone who has given their life to save another, is actually the key that grants access to the treasure room.

That shifts the entire focus of the puzzle from one of “opening the door” to “how can the statue determine who qualifies?” and the heart of the puzzle becomes one of roleplaying, not how clever you are.

Step 2: Assess the characters

Some characters will have advantages, in terms of skills and knowledge, in solving the puzzle. I generally make a list of those with an advantage, and assign a DC commensurate with the degree of difficulty involved in solving the puzzle through the successful application of that knowledge alone.

Some puzzles involve the dexterous manipulation of levers or beads or whatever, for example, in which case a rogue’s skills might apply. Other puzzles, in a scifi campaign, might be quickly solved by someone with computer programming skills, but be very difficult otherwise.

Step 3: Design A Difficult Puzzle Simulation

Here’s the clever bit! I design a puzzle to be solved by the players who fail to achieve the target on the day. This might have nothing to do with the actual puzzle to be solved within the games, it’s just a way to assess success or failure. An example might be a cryptic crossword cut from a newspaper (with the solution extracted from the next day’s newspaper). This permits variation in difficulty by partially completing the crossword in advance.

Another possibility is a Rubik’s Cube, or something from one of those puzzle books that Johnn mentioned, or a difficult riddle, or a game of Sudoku, or even a chess problem. I prefer something that everyone who failed their check, or who had no special expertise to contribute, can work together to solve as a team.

If necessary, a time limit can be imposed to raise the difficulty.

Step 4: Design An Easier Puzzle Simulation

That of course requires an easier puzzle simulation for those who do succeed in the skill check to work on. This can be the same puzzle (with even more of it completed) as that given to the players of the failing characters, or it can be an easier puzzle. If a time limit has been imposed on the difficult puzzle, a more generous or even unlimited time limit can be applied to the “easier” puzzle.

Even something as simple as the longest word that can be devised from a given set of letters, with restrictions on how many times a letter can be reused, and a time limit, can make an effective puzzle simulation.

Again, I prefer something that everyone who succeeded can work on as a team.

The Benefits

This approach takes puzzles out of the realm of things that can be solved by rolling dice; instead, you are engaging the players as a group in an activity that is supposedly a metaphor for what their characters are doing.

It means that the puzzle becomes a group activity and not a solo spotlight – though it can also spotlight a single character’s advantages in a more concrete and less abstract way.

The toughest puzzle I’ve ever posed

Okay, so this is a slight diversion, but it’s too much fun to ignore. You’ll need a pair of pliers and a wire coat hanger.

Straighten the wire out with the pliers, cutting the end off if necessary. Put a loop at one end and fasten it to a board or workbench with a screw or nail. Position a light so that the wire casts a shadow on the wall behind where you are working – a torch resting on the bench between you and the wire is best. Use the pliers to twist the wire into loops so that the shadow spells out a word – probably only a short one, 5-7 letters long. Ideally, the ends should be in line. When you’ve finished, remove the nail or screw and cut off the loop at the end. (I “used” a wire coathanger because it is stiff enough to retain it’s shape with substantial handling).

When the time comes to present the puzzle, simply hand over the wire. To solve the puzzle, players have to rotate it to the correct orientation with respect to both the light source and the surface upon which the shadow lies, realise that they matter, read the word – not always the easiest of tasks in a well-lit area – figure out the significance of the word, and then act on that instruction!

It took my brightest player all afternoon. He was excited, grew frustrated, then depressed, then eager as he finally started to figure it out, then elated as the solution came together.

To be fair, I didn’t have time to actually construct the puzzle, only to draw it on a sheet of paper. But, to counterbalance that, I told him when he got part of the answer right, so it was a fair contest.

And, also to be fair, I didn’t expect it to be as difficult as it was; I gave a number of hints and clues in the buildup that I expected to make it fairly quick going. They didn’t. So this remains the hardest puzzle I have ever put in front of a player.

I could have made it harder – two words, each cut in half in the right spot so that the pieces seem to line up – but that might have been going too far.

Going Even Further

In the modern world of the laptop and flash games etc, there are all sorts of options. There are games of skill, games of strategy, games of hand-eye coordination, etc, and they can all be used to simulate a puzzle. It might be that in order to succeed, the player has to achieve a lap time that’s less than a given target in a racing game, or earn a certain sum in a poker game (not using real money, of course).

Board games are another option, as are card games. The possibilities are almost endless. And they all stem from targeting a puzzle at the players, not at the characters.

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