D&D offers lots of opportunities for using different types of puzzles. And D&D environmental puzzles rank among the coolest ways to introduce fantastic puzzles into your game. And yet, they are seriously underused. Here’s why:
Basically there are two types of puzzles in D&D. The first are your simpler puzzles. You can place these type of puzzles on doors, treasure chest or a wizard’s tome. They work great and are added to any campaign easily. I use them often. But it is because they are so easy and obvious that they are overused.
The second type of puzzles are your D&D environmental puzzles. These are less obvious. They are the type of puzzles that use wilderness terrain or are based off the political landscape in the region. These puzzles can require a bit more work to set up. But they are also more immersive and story driven. A good environmental puzzle can really define your D&D campaign.
If you are looking for quick puzzles you can simply place onto your dungeon door or sprinkle throughout your dungeons, check out my articles on dungeon puzzles and door puzzles. But if you are looking for a D&D environmental puzzle that will add depth to your D&D world, read on.
D&D Wilderness Puzzles to Define Your Environment
The first puzzle that I’d like to discuss is wilderness puzzles. While travelling through the wilderness DMs often feel they have to use wandering monsters to challenge the PCs. Wandering monsters are great, but it can get a little repetitive to only have monster type challenges in the wilderness. So how do you introduce a D&D environmental puzzle for wilderness terrain?
Wilderness Puzzles turns the very ground underneath the PCs’ feet into the puzzle. You start this puzzle by instilling a sense of danger. Not only is the wilderness riddled with monsters, the very land itself provides all kinds of dangers. Mushrooms spores, bushes that hide all kinds of critters, poisonous pits are just a few of the dangers the wilderness holds.
In order to navigate the terrain PCs must first study the lay of the land. Using the clues the puzzle provides about the terrain, they can deduct what the entire terrain looks like and what dangers AND opportunities it holds. PCs who are wise enough to study the terrain can use it to their advantage.
The cool thing about this puzzle is that by solving it, the players create the terrain environment where an combat encounter can take place. The pieces of the puzzle make up the wilderness floor on which the encounter takes place. So you can immediately move from the puzzle challenge into the combat challenge without any delay.
And all that knowledge of figuring out the terrain will actually serve players during the combat because every wilderness terrain type in the puzzle has different pros or cons the players can use to their advantage.
D&D Environmental Puzzles to Define Magic Item Creation
To most players the study and creation of magical items holds a sense of wonder. And yet, the rules in D&D for creating magical items are a little lacklustre. Role a few checks, see if you succeed and your magic item is done. Where is the sense of wonder in that?
Magic item creation could be an integral part of your D&D environment providing players with unique puzzle opportunities and adventures. Picture it:
“You wish to create a powerful magic sword. But to create the magical oils and polishes required you must first find all the ingredients. Common ingredient can be bought in any magic shop but the rarest of ingredients are only found at the end of an epic quest.
Once you obtain the ingredients, you must discover the formula for creating the magical oils and polishes. You scour the world and study arcane lore to collect all the clues. Then you puzzle out how to brew to oils and polishes. And finally, you apply them to your masterwork blade, crafting a legendary magical sword.”
With Potion Puzzles you can create potions, inks, oils, perfumes, dyes, and polishes. These, in turn, can be used to create any type of magical item you desire. So it really is a complete system for creating magic items that becomes an integral part of your D&D environment. Wizards closely guard rare ingredients and finding clues to formulas or ingredients can become adventures in their own right, or you can use them to spice up treasure players find.
Potion puzzles comes with 12 ingredients ranging from common to rare, and 45 puzzles for figuring out formulas. If you place all of these puzzles into your D&D environment they can really add flavour to your world.
D&D Environmental Puzzle to Define the Political Landscape
The last puzzle I’d like to discuss is the ‘Game of Shields‘. It is as much a puzzle as it is a complete system for running a political campaign. With the game of shields you can quickly generate a complex political landscape with multiple factions vying for control. The players can bride, double-cross, blackmail, and assassinate to their hearts content. But it is also possible to form alliances.
Puzzling out how what the political landscape looks like is the first step of this puzzle. Next, players must change the situation so they become the most powerful faction. And when they do they’ve gained enough political power to progress to a bigger political arena. So you might have them start gaining power in a little hamlet or even a trader’s caravan. And they could progress to becoming the dominant political power of the entire realm.
What I like about this puzzle system is that it is very visual. It uses 81 heraldic shields with four types of symbols. These tell the players everything they need to know about the type of faction a shield represents AND how to solve the puzzle. It adds a whole other dimension to your D&D puzzle environment. The pack comes with 20 premade political puzzles but you can create as many as you wish.
All these puzzles can also be found in the Vault Bundle at a reduced price. The vault bundle contains a variety of puzzles – both simple and environmental – and lots of other cool stuff such as riddles and prophecies to help define your D&D world.
Creating a D&D Environmental Puzzle
I hope these three examples have given you some inspiration for looking puzzles that you just stick to a door. A well crafted series of puzzles can define your entire D&D environment and even become the vehicle that drives your entire campaign.
Using puzzles this way doesn’t mean PCs can’t go adventuring. The opposite is true. Assassinating the leader of a faction, stealing the key ingredient from a wizard’s laboratory, or using the lay of the land to your advantage when fighting a monster are all action packed. But the rewards can be use in your environmental puzzles. And the promise of power motivates your players to explore your unique world.
By Paul Camp
Image credit: WotC