In Dungeons & Dragons there are two types of encounters that are both great fun; Puzzles and Combat. And D&D puzzle encounters contain both which is double the fun. In this article we’ll combine the best of both words to create an amazing encounter your players will not soon forget.
How To Set Up a D&D Puzzle Encounter
If you wish to create an amazing D&D puzzle encounter there are a lot of things to consider.
On the one hand, creating great puzzles and creating great combat encounters is hard enough in and of itself. And trying to create a puzzle encounter that runs smooth and works on all levels is even harder.
On the other hand, when you do manage to combine what makes puzzles and combat great in a way that both aspects elevate each other, your puzzle encounter can reach greater heights than an ordinary encounter would. You want to create a synergy between the best that both types of encounters have to offer.
In the next paragraphs we’ll look at different types of ways to combine puzzles and combat that I play tested and that have worked very well in my experience.
1. D&D Puzzle Encounters: Trial and Error
The first way to combine puzzles and combat is super easy. Your party encounters a puzzle and tries to solve it. But every time they make a mistake, monsters appear and attack them. This shouldn’t be much of a problem if characters make only one mistake, but multiple mistakes quickly add up. And parties that make too many mistakes, or just try out stuff without thinking it through, will take a beating.
I like this set up because it takes care of a lot of problems. A very common and much dreaded problem with most puzzles is that players sometimes get stuck. With this puzzle encounter that won’t happen. They can always try to solve the puzzle through simple trial and error. But each time they try, monsters appear. So repeated tries are going to cost them and the tension of avoiding mistakes rises as their hitpoints and recourses are lowered.
For the players who don’t like puzzles, the monsters are a welcome change. By adding monsters you’re engaging everyone at the table. Also, puzzles can take players out of the game. Players sometimes forget about their characters and the campaign world all together while they are solving the puzzle. But with this set up, their choices have very direct consequences to their characters which improves immersion. Finally, characters can beat the puzzle using both their character’s abilities and their problem solving skills as players. And the best encounters challenge both the players and their characters.
Not all types of puzzles go well with the trial and error method. As a puzzles creator I would recommend puzzles that require a lot of steps to complete. And it works better with puzzles where it is obvious to the DM when players make a mistake. So for the trial and error set up I recommend:
2. D&D Puzzle Encounters: Time Based Terror
In this set up, monsters appear every couple of minutes in real time. This creates a lot of pressure to solve the puzzle as quickly as possible before the next wave of monsters hit. The puzzle encounter has a couple of advantages.
First, it is a lot more exiting to have to solve a puzzle while the clock is running. The extra tension and in game consequences add to the immersion. Players won’t have an endless amount of time to sit back and discuss the puzzle.
The party will also have to divide their characters between those that are trying to solve the puzzle and those that are fending off the monsters. That’s great for players who have no interest in solving puzzles. Everyone contributes in their own way.
With this puzzle encounter it’s best to give players who are in combat a maximum amount of time they get on their initiative. Otherwise, clever players might take a long time to decide their action and look stuff up so their friends get more time to solve the puzzle.
Also, if you choose this type of puzzle encounter, make sure that you pick a puzzle where players can’t get stuck. An easier puzzle involving many steps would work best.
Again, having many steps to a puzzle is important and the puzzle should be relatively easy to solve. I recommend using the smaller set ups for the following puzzles.
You can create puzzles of any difficulty level with Runestone Puzzles and adjust the difficulty level on the fly.
With Lock Puzzles players must go through many options which isn’t hard but takes time. Adjusting the difficulty level is very easy.
3. D&D Puzzle Encounters: The Guardian
In this set up the party encounters an intelligent monster who guards a door or object the characters need. The monster will only allow the party to continue if they solve the puzzle. It is a twist on well known Sphinx and the Riddle.
The advantage of using this type of puzzle encounter is that the characters have a choice. They can either choose to solve the puzzle or deal with the sphinx through combat or persuasion.
When players get stuck on a puzzle, they have a second option. Of course things don’t need to be as black and white as ‘solve the puzzle’ or ‘attack the monster’. An intelligent monster could offer to grand the players clues in exchange for gold, items or even life force (hitpoints).
If you wish to do riddles instead of puzzles: The Deck of Riddles gives you 101 riddles to choose from.
Rune Puzzles work really well with a monster that communicates an ancient or alien language.
4. D&D Puzzle Encounters: The Golem
This is an option that I haven’t used much, but just to give a complete overview, I’ll include it here. You can have a monster that is immune to damage and magic attack the party while they are trying to solve the puzzle. Just like the time based terror this puzzle encounter relies heavily on playing out the challenge in real time.
What I don’t like about this set up is that it doesn’t give the players many options. They can try to outsmart the golem by evasion and fighting defensively but that’s about it. There are other options that have more merit. So let’s take a look at those.
You could make this set up a lot more interesting if the golem gives the players a clue every time it has taken a certain amount of damage. With this setup, after the clue was given, the monster heals all damage. Now, the players have a choice: They can choose to spend their recourses on fighting the golem and getting clues or choose to solve the puzzle themselves.
There are many interesting ways of revealing clues. The obvious way is of course to just have the golum speak a clue. But what if the clues are hidden behind pieces of armor that come off when the golem has taken a certain amount of damage? Or maybe paper strips with clues fall out of a straw golems head wizard of Ozz style? Plenty of ways to spruce up this idea.
The metal key pieces of Lock Puzzles could be part of the Golem that break off after it has taken a certain amount of damage.
With Runestone Puzzles the stones could break off the Golem and you get different colours. Maybe for multiple Golems?
5. D&D Puzzle Encounters: The Puzzle Monster
This is a very special set up where the monster itself IS the puzzle! A classic computer game that uses a similar approach is ‘Shadow of the Colossus’. In this game the players had to reach certain points on a giant monster’s body. Finding out how to reach those points was the puzzle.
For D&D puzzle encounters you can place the puzzle pieces on the monster’s body. First, characters have to puzzle out how to reach those puzzle pieces. Then, they must place the puzzle pieces correctly to solve a puzzle. Both clues and puzzle pieces can be added to the colossus in this way.
With most puzzles the clues and pieces have to be combined on a board of some sort. I would advise against placing the board on the Colossus. Combining the puzzle pieces takes time and it can be really frustrating if the characters are thrown from the colossus while they try to solve the puzzle. You could however, create an opening in the colossus once all puzzle pieces are found. Then, the party could climb into the colossus where they are safe and solve the puzzle there.
Again, this set up works best with a golem or colossus that cannot be destroyed, save by solving the puzzle.
For inspiration, watch the play through of shadow of the colossus on YouTube. It will give you lots of ideas on how to place puzzle pieces and use the environment.
Again, Lock Puzzles would be your best bet. It has lost of puzzle pieces you can hide on your colossus.
Rune Puzzles work really well because you can use clues that PCs can only read if they reach the rune text on the colossus. (And it looks cool to have a rune covered colossus attacking the party.)
6. D&D Puzzle Encounters: The Dungeon
The final puzzle encounter is an easy one that often gets overlooked. You simple place the puzzle pieces around a monster infested dungeon or you can even put puzzle pieces into the hands of factions within that dungeon. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a dungeon, but you get the idea.
The advantage of this set up is that it allows players a maximum amount of ways to solve the puzzle. PCs can fight the monsters to get the pieces, but they could also sneak by monsters and steal pieces. If you use intelligent monsters they could use persuasion, buy pieces or trade the pieces for a favour or small side quest.
Instead of puzzle pieces, you could do the same with clues. This allows players even more options. They can try to solve the puzzle directly, or explore the monster infested dungeon hunting for clues.
If characters do uncover a clue, I’d always give them the clue that will help them with the next step of the puzzle. Don’t give clues for things they’ve already solved. While that would be more realistic it also adds nothing to the story. Puzzles can slow the game down, so pick up the pace wherever possible.
With Dungeon Puzzles the entire dungeon Is the puzzle. So PCs can find all the pieces to create a map of the next level scattered around their current level. And once they’ve solved it they can immediately unlock and play that level.
The ingredients of Potion Puzzles are the key pieces PCs have to find.
7. D&D Puzzle Encounters: Inside The Monster’s Mind
The final set up is a bit of a weird one, but I have done a whole campaign around it and it worked really well. In this giant puzzle encounter the characters exist in a sentient prison or in the mind of a God. (For insiration read Weiss and Hickman’s Death gate Cycle).
For this example, lets choose a living prison. The prison conjures up rooms with different scenery such as deserts, floating islands etc. It can also conjure up all kinds of monsters to attack the players. As long as PCs stay in their assigned room, they’re safe. But when they try to leave their assigned room and escape the prison, it conjures up all kinds of dangerous obstacles.
Of course, characters who wish to leave will have to get through a lot of rooms to reach the mainframe and shut down the prison. And they can only get to a different room by solving the puzzle hidden in each room.
This set up has a ton of advantages. For one, I’ve played many a dungeon where the placement of traps and wandering monsters just didn’t make any sense. Why would there be a pit trap in every other corridor? Who would build such a thing?! A sentient prison explains all of that.
Another advantage is that you can introduce players to a great variety of scenes and settings which are all contained within one bigger campaign setting. And the puzzles tie the entire campaign setting together.
With Laser Puzzles: Scifi Edition PCs can hack the prison to open the door to the next level.
The Vault Bundle contains every product in the DungeonVault webshop at a very low price. You can fill out your campaign with as many puzzle encounters as you like.
That’s it. Those are my seven play tested ideas for creating your own D&D Puzzle Encounters. If you found article useful, please share it, or the DungeonVault website, on social media.
By Paul Camp
Image credit: Pathfinder, DungeonVault.