One of the fun aspects of any Dungeons and Dragons adventure can be the puzzle. It gives the Dungeon master a chance to test his players mentally, and creates a good (typically) non combat encounter for the players to interact with. Sadly however most Games Masters do not understand how and when to use puzzles, and struggle with the concept of balance. So here are some tips and criteria to consider when adding a puzzle to your adventure.
What kind of puzzle?
Firstly there are many types of puzzles. We have Riddles, room puzzles, physical puzzles, mental puzzles and more. A puzzle can be anything that challenges the players to “figure it out”. While puzzles can be fun and exciting they also have the potential to become overly frustrating or even derail an adventure. When choosing what kind of puzzle you need to make sure that it is one that fits with the types of player and characters that you are going to present it too. Having a puzzle where they have to move 300 pound boulders into place is not going to be well suited for a party with rogue and a low level cleric and wizard. In the same way presenting a difficult mental puzzle to a low intelligence Barbarian is going to be a poor fit. By the same light, if one of your players has an IQ of 140 (which would be like having an eighteen for a character) you can expect them to solve a Moderate math puzzle with ease but if the other three players only have an average IQ the same puzzle may be difficult for them.
Dungeons and Dragons relies on theater of the mind. You should not assume that the players are imagining the same thing you are. Especially When it comes to a puzzle that is more than a verbal or written riddle. Due to this you must be descriptive when explaining what your players are encountering. Use handouts and drawings if possible so that they can look and see what their characters are seeing. Telling them that you see ten numbers a two, a four, a nine, a seventeen etc etc is going to be hard for them to keep track of and force them to write things down or ask you to repeat what they see multiple times. If you give them a handout showing those numbers it is much easier and clearer for them to understand. Also you must describe every needed detail. If you fail to mention to the players that the strange mosaic on the wall has tiles of red, green and blue, do not be surprised when they do not draw a parallel to the red, green and blue tapestries they passed in the hall way. Your descriptions of the puzzle should be detailed and accurate.
How challenging should it be?
Just because you may think a puzzle is easy, does not mean your players will find it so. Remember you have the answer staring you in the face, they do not. It is hard to determine how difficult the players will find a puzzle so you have to use a certain amount of judgment. Where ever possible it is a good idea to have puzzles that can be figured out by trail and error. or make sure that there are some achievable clues that can help them if they seem to get stumped. On the whole it is better if the puzzle ends up being a little easier than you would have liked than being to difficult. Remember the players are not your adversaries. You are not here to BEAT the players, hell you can do that on a whim anytime you wish, You are the Dungeon Master! You are here to provide a great story and a fun experience. Its way more fun for a player to solve a puzzle in thirty seconds than be stuck pondering it for over thirty minutes. Remember that frustrated players are not having fun. Until you get a good grasp of what kinds of puzzles your players deal with best (and worst), air on the side of caution and assume it will be harder for them than you think.
When and where to use a puzzle.
One thing to think about is what will the reward for solving a puzzle be and what is the consequence for failing. If the puzzle is a room puzzle and the only way for the players to progress is by solving it, what happens if they don’t? If you make it essential for a puzzle to be solved in order for the adventure to succeed, you are gambling a hell of a lot on the players ability to solve your puzzle. I like to make puzzles optional. In other words there is no direct consequence for failing to solve it, however if they do they get a bonus reward. As an example, perhaps they see a side room that has a nice hoard of shiny things on the other side of it. To get their greedy little hands on the loot, they must solve a puzzle. If they do they are rewarded with the extra treasure, but if they fail or become frustrated, they can proceed without it directly impacting the story. On this note it is not a good idea to make acquiring a NEEDED item dependent on the solving of a puzzle, as once again you set up a scenario to possibly derail the adventure. Treat puzzles like extra content, but for the most part do not make it essential. Now If yo do decide to place a puzzle and make solving it essential, then it should be one that can be solved by trail and error or you should be prepared to afford them clues in some fashion as we mentioned earlier. At the very least the answer should be within their grasp and not totally dependent on what the players know or can fathom.
Characters ability vs player ability.
Another thing to consider is your players are probably not socially, physically and mentally the same as the characters they play. Robert himself may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but his wizard may have an intelligence of seventeen. Robert is confronted with a riddle and he sits there for fifteen minutes trying to figure it out but he just isn’t getting it. the odds are at this point Robert is stumped and is not going to figure it out. Now his wizard character on the other hand, who has seventeen intelligence, is considered to have superior mental ability. A person with average human intelligence (being around nine or ten or 100 IQ) may struggle a little with the riddle but would the wizard character? My usual method for dealing with this is to allow the player to roll on a stat if they wish, but if they do and fail I consider that final and do not allow them to continue to solve the puzzle themselves (unless some new circumstance should change the difficulty or provide a clue). Also I do not reward any experience points for solving it by resorting to a dice roll. If the player himself solves the riddle I always reward experience points for doing so. Sometimes I will start at a base value for the puzzle (say five hundred experience points) and then make some clues available to them. For each clue they use I deduct one hundred experience points of their potential reward so if they solve it but use three clues they only get two hundred of the possible five hundred experience points. using this method I give the players an out should they begin to get frustrated or simply can not solve the puzzle.
Puzzles can be fun but if used incorrectly they can be a pain in the ass and suck the life out of any adventure. Follow these tips and you will be incorporating new and enjoyable encounters into your game in no time. Happy Gaming………