Making puzzles for D&D is by far the most complex challenge you can create in Dungeons & Dragons. There are so many considerations that go into making a good D&D puzzle that you can easily get overwhelmed. And the time invested in making a puzzle versus the time players spend solving it is terrible. Literally, any other challenge in D&D takes less time and knowledge to make and offers more playtime for players.
So why make a D&D puzzle?
If you get a puzzle just right there is nothing quite like it. By making a puzzle for your players you create a unique experience as they flow from one discovery into the next. Even veteran players who have ‘seen it all’ will be surprised by a well-designed puzzle. While it’s more work to make puzzles they are also much more rewarding.
But how do you make a D&D puzzle?
Hi, I’m Paul Camp and I’ve made hundreds of puzzles for D&D and sold a great many more. Over the years I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. In this article, I’ll share all my pro tips and considerations for making D&D puzzles and I’ll take you through the whole progress of making your own D&D puzzle step by step. There’s a LOT to consider, so let’s get started:
1. Choose Goals for Your D&D Puzzle Design
No one puzzle can do it all. So before you start making your D&D puzzle it’s a good idea to choose a few goals for what you want your puzzle to do. Here’s a list of things I try to look for when designing a puzzle:
- Cooperative: Players need to work together to solve the puzzle.
- Flow: The puzzle has many easy steps that each give a feeling of success and progression.
- Danger: Solving the puzzle could involve some danger. But not solving the puzzle is even more dangerous in the long run.
- Timing: Puzzles should be solvable somewhere in between 1 and 30 minutes. Any longer and you lose immersion. (Four players can solve a puzzle in about 3/4 of the time it takes a single player in my experience)
- Difficulty: A good puzzle wants to be solved.
- Integration: The art style of your puzzle must seamlessly fit your world.
- Introduction: There must be a believable logical reason for the puzzle to exist in your world.
You can think of this as a checklist for making a good D&D puzzle. At the same time, trying to incorporate all of these in a single puzzle design is very restrictive and all your puzzles will become similar and boring. Instead, try to make a puzzle that does a couple of these really well and your players will get a different experience with each design.
2. Make a D&D Puzzle Design
With your goals in the back of your mind, it’s time to choose a design for your puzzle. This is the step where most creators feel overwhelmed. There are just so many possibilities to choose from. Where do you start?
Limitation breeds creativity. You can generate ideas for making your puzzle much easier if you limit your choices. For instance, you could limit your choices by stating that you want to create a puzzle that goes on a door. For specific tips on creating door puzzles read this article. And another possible limitation is using letters and no numbers.
Next, just grab an empty sheet of paper and start tinkering with a rough design. Remember, ideas are cheap. You can run through ten ideas in a couple of minutes. For me, creativity isn’t sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s running through tons of ideas and checking each one to see how well it fits the goals I set out to start with. And limiting your choices until you hit the creative sweet spot will help you a lot.
Let’s say I want a quick door puzzle that requires little explanation and involves multiple steps using letters. With puzzles, it often helps to work backward and layout the elements visually. So I draw a door and write down the answer to the puzzle. I decide the word ‘threshold’ is the codeword players must speak to solve the puzzle so I’ll have something concrete to work with.
After testing different layouts I came up with this design.
Players have to find the two T’s on the door and they can find the next character located halfway between those letters which is an H. Then they go searching for the other H on the door and look for the letter halfway between those two and so on.
This puzzle doesn’t have a strong narrative and it’s not clear why anyone would create such a door. But it is quick, logical, there’s a nice flow of discoveries, and the DM can simply drop this single image in any campaign at a moment’s notice. Again, no one puzzle can do it all but that’s how you create variety.
Also, making a puzzle that blocks a path is one of the easiest and least imaginative uses of a puzzle. Puzzles work really well on a larger scale. You can use them to create an entire system for magic item creation: see Potion Puzzles, to create dungeons: see Dungeon Puzzles, or even as a complete system for running politics in your game: see Game of Shields. When designing puzzles think big.
3. Add Flow to Your D&D Puzzles
There is one thing I advise you to incorporate in all of your puzzles. And that’s FLOW. Flow is the feeling of one successful discovery leading to the next. This continued feeling of success is why puzzles are so addictive to many. Just look at all the popular puzzles. Whether it’s a sudoku, tetris, or a jigsaw puzzle; they all have multiple steps to solving them and each step creates a feeling of success.
Conversely, consider a puzzle like the famous puzzle in the Lord of the Rings for entering Moria. ‘Speak friend and enter’. This puzzle only has one solution and players either get it or they don’t. There’s no journey of discovery or trail of breadcrumbs to follow. This type of puzzle works great in a novel but is terrible for D&D. It evokes the opposite feeling of flow, which is being stuck. Even Gandalf didn’t enjoy solving that one.
Besides being more enjoyable, there are two other reasons for creating multiple smaller steps to a puzzle. The first is that players are much less likely to get stuck. Each step of my previous puzzle is easily solvable. But because there are multiple steps to solve, players will still have a great sense of accomplishment.
It’s the same with solving a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces. It doesn’t require great intelligence solving so many steps still feels like you’ve done something really difficult. Having multiple easier steps that everyone at the table is comfortable solving creates a more inclusive gaming experience.
The second reason is that with multiple steps it is easier for DMs to give hints without giving away the whole puzzle. But more on that later.
3. Identify Your D&D Puzzle’s ILOF
The term ILOF is an acronym for Illogical Leaps Of Faith.
It’s where the puzzle designer assumes the players will figure something out that they could logically not possibly know or that doesn’t have a logical place in the story. Most puzzles suffer from them and we need to root them out.
In Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything you can find a couple of very well-designed puzzles. But some of them do suffer from ILOFs. I’ll just discuss the first puzzle in the book to illustrate what an ILOF is and how to solve it. (So spoiler alert and also, these are great puzzles. It’s just this one detail that I believe could be improved.)
In the first puzzle in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, players see seven different paintings of monsters. They must somehow figure out that the number of monsters in each painting corresponds with the letter of the name of the monster. So a painting with two dragons yields the letter R because that’s the second letter in the word DRAGON and so on.
The only clue to this logic is a plaque that reads ‘count on your enemies’. If players can’t figure this out by themselves, they can make a check to see if their character would know.
This challenge is an example of an ILOF. Why?
- First, there is no logical process that would make players suspect that the number of monsters corresponds with the letter.
- Second, there is no logical reason for the nr. of monsters to correspond with the letter.
You find ILOFs in your puzzle design by asking yourself if the players could have reasonably reasoned out the correct answer by following clues and logic. And if the answer is no, you need to redesign your puzzle to get rid of your ILOFs.
Don’t just add a check to let players make an illogical connection. That makes for an unsatisfying player experience. If players spend a lot of time on problems they could have never reasoned out logically anyway they can come to resend puzzles.
Instead of using a check to overcome ILOFs they are often a chance to add more story and develop your D&D puzzle further. In the case of our example, you could add a plaque with the name of each monster at the bottom of each painting. But with two paintings the correct letters are missing.
Now players can notice a logical pattern between the number of monsters on a painting and the letter that’s missing. And they can start gathering the letters below the other paintings.
That takes care of the logical process. But you still need a logical reason for collecting the letters. You could add a bit of lore where the wizard who created these paintings is known for imprisoning monsters by capturing their name. There’s an eighth painting with a black canvas hanging in a corner. And stuck to its empty name plaque are the two missing letters. Someone must have tried to solve this puzzle before but never got to finish their work. If players spell out the name of the monster with the letters it appears in the painting and jumps into the room leaving a treasure or key for the next part of the journey.
Another ILOF in this puzzle was that the collected letters formed an anagram for a monster name. Again, by adding a narrative it becomes logical that the remaining letters need to be added to the plaque of the black painting and rearranged somehow.
Identifying ILOFs in your puzzle is one of the hardest things to do because you need to act as if you’re a player who doesn’t know what you as a designer clearly do. But if you get rid of them your puzzle becomes more enjoyable. It’s why puzzle designers say: ‘A good puzzle wants to be solved’.
4. Challenge the Puzzle Players and Their Characters
One of the most common critiques of making puzzles for D&D is that puzzles challenge the player and not the characters. Why is this a problem?
A clever player playing a character with low intelligence could solve the puzzle while the player playing a wizard with high intelligence might not. It’s a fair critique but there’s a way around it.
First, let’s compare puzzle challenges to other challenges in D&D. A combat challenge uses a PC’s stats for rolling to attack and dealing damage. This challenges the character. But players still need to make tactical decisions. Do they rush in or sneak? Do they run for cover or charge? Those decisions challenge the player, not the character. The same goes for social challenges. A player haggling with a vendor rolls a charisma check (challenging the character) but also roleplays the encounter challenging the player.
In short: Great challenges in D&D are both challenging to the player AND their character. When making puzzles for D&D we want to do the same.
Challenging players is easy. Every puzzle does that automatically. For challenging the character, you can incorporate skill checks. Having multiple steps to solving a puzzle is essential. On a successful intelligence check, you can give a hint.
I like to give players a number of intelligence checks equal to their intelligence modifier. They still need to make the check, but it limits players endlessly rolling to see if they get a good result.
But you don’t have to rely only on intelligence or investigation checks for solving puzzles. With puzzles, you can incorporate all kinds of challenges that fit each character’s strengths. An example:
“Doerak the Mighty and his fellowship enter the Living Library. A place most unfamiliar to the Barbarian. Of course, the feeble wizard, Laudius, would feel right at home and Stickyfingers the Deft is already eyeing the books looking for rare volumes to pinch.
Just when Doerak decides to let Laudius lead the way, his mighty ears pick up the sound of hundreds of feet echo through the hallways. ‘Goblins!’ They decide to make a run for it and Living Books start shushing them for making such a racket. The wizard seems to know where they are going though. But when they come to a very narrow hallway, Doerak decides to make a stand. ‘Go find a way out, while I hold them off!’
Laudius and Stickyfingers head into the next circular room where bookcases lining the walls rise a hundred feet high. Laudius inspects the room and finds a puzzle hidden in the floor connected to a trapdoor. Above the roar of Doerak fighting the goblins and a thousand books trying to shush him, Laudius yells: ‘Stickyfingers, I need that book on the top shelf to solve this puzzle!’ Stickyfingers looks up at the dangerous climb ahead and just nods to the Wizard before making his ascent.”
In this example, the puzzle can only be solved if Sticky fingers climbs a wall of bookcases and Doerak fights and holds off a band of goblins to buy Laudius enough time.
You can easily add different types of challenges to any puzzle. Place a lever on a ceiling, have monsters come out and fight, or whatever challenges PCs in ways they find interesting. You don’t have to force players who do not enjoy puzzles to solve them but you can give them other meaningful tasks that are essential to success.
5. Make Artwork for Your D&D Puzzle
Most of D&D is played in the theatre of the mind. You usually only add visual aids when using terrain, tokens, or props. Those aids can greatly add to creating an immersive experience. Creating visual puzzles players can touch and manipulate is another way of creating an immersive experience.
One critique of puzzles is that they break immersion. And that’s true if you just stick a sudoku to a door and call it a D&D puzzle. But if you create artwork that matches your story it can do the opposite. Good artwork helps immersion. And you don’t need to be a great artist to create artwork for your puzzles. Just make sure your drawings match the story.
Personally, I like to use basic math in many of my puzzles because math is very clear. Players don’t have to guess if they’ve arrived at the correct answer. And puzzles without math sometimes refer to real-world knowledge characters wouldn’t know.
But the downside of using math is that it doesn’t look like a D&D puzzle. So if you choose to use math, you need to hide it in the artwork. Here’s an article on how to do that.
6. Create an Introduction for Your D&D Puzzle
In puzzle design, you often work backward. So designing an introduction to your D&D puzzle is one of your last steps.
Good introductions do a couple of things:
- They make the existence of the puzzle plausible in the world.
- They give players the rules to solving the puzzle.
- They give players a reason for solving the puzzle.
There are surprisingly few plausible reasons for puzzles to exist. Most are a variation of the following:
- Puzzles often act as a filter or test. A wizard can lock tomes with a puzzle because he wants only those of sufficient intelligence to read its arcane secrets. The plausible reason for the puzzle is to filter out the worthy.
- Another common reason for puzzles existing is that some information is lost or hidden and players must reconstruct what was there. This is basically every murder mystery.
- A third plausible reason for puzzles to exist is tactics. Players must solve a political puzzle and maneuver in the correct position.
- And finally, there’s the accidental puzzle where a construct is about to collapse or a trap was laid and players must find a route that doesn’t trigger disaster.
The rules to solving a puzzle must be clear but if you can hide them or make them a plausible part of the story, that’s more powerful. For instance, with a puzzle I made called floor puzzles players first play a quick elven card game in a tavern. Later they find a puzzle in an elven temple and discover that the rules of the game are key to solving the puzzle. So in playing the card game, the players are learning the rules to the puzzle without even realizing it.
It’s very hard to hide the rules of a puzzle naturally. So you get DM bonus points if you manage it.
Of course, we can’t just place a puzzle in front of players. They need a reason for solving it. That reason could be as simple as continuing their journey. But you can really make your puzzle much more immersive if you spend a little time thinking about reasons.
For instance, what if the players hear the cries of a beloved NPC slowly dying away from the other side of a door? Suddenly opening the door in time becomes essential to the story. And what if water is rising on this side of the door? Or that horde of goblins threatens to overpower Doerak the Mighty? Adding urgency can help with immersion a lot.
7. Avoid Getting Stuck on a Puzzle
The last thing you want to consider is to avoid players getting stuck on a puzzle. What happens if the players are unable to solve your brainteaser? Here are four alternatives:
The easiest way to avoid getting stuck is to give players hints. In theory, you can give endless checks until they have all the information they need. In reality, Players only need hints for some steps of the puzzle and can figure out most steps on their own. So wait with giving hints until players ask for them and let them know they can use checks if they do feel stuck. Most players will want to solve the puzzle themselves first.
If you are using multiple puzzles or a puzzle involving many steps, players can finish the puzzle without solving every part of it For instance, you could give players five mini-puzzles as a challenge and each puzzle open a door a crack wider. If they solve 3 out of 5 the door stands open wide enough to wriggle through.
You can also have two doors leading to the next room, each with its separate puzzle. If players can’t solve one, they can try the other one.
If you wish to add a puzzle that players might not be able to solve at all, make sure it leads to a non-essential bonus in your story. For instance, players might find a minor magical item if they solve the puzzle. But it shouldn’t be connected to the next step of your story.
This one hurts DMs the most who have spent hours making a D&D puzzle. But you can give players alternative routes to reaching their goals. The door with a puzzle can also be kicked in. A divination spell gives players the information they need and so on. Not the most fun for DMs but it is reasonable.
8. Consider Buying of the Shelf
There’s a lot that goes into making a good D&D puzzle. You can easily spend hours making a puzzle that takes your party ten minutes to solve. And if you get it right, it’s totally worth it. But there’s only so much prep time for any game and making puzzles regularly can be a chore.
Fortunately, I have a collection of hundreds of illustrated puzzles for D&D in my webshop for both tabletops and virtual tabletop. It will save you days of prep work and there are enough puzzles for a lifetime of DMing. So please check it out here.
By Paul Camp
Image credit: WotC, New Line Cinema