How to make D&D puzzles involves a lot of steps. You can make a puzzle with almost no effort, but that doesn’t mean it will be good. In fact! IF YOU DON’T MAKE A GOOD PUZZLE, IT WILL HURT YOUR GAME!!! That is why we are going over how to make D&D puzzles.
When considering how to make D&D puzzles, you need a few things. First, give useful hints, options, and a purpose.
We will go over some puzzle examples and different types of puzzles you can make later on in the article. We will also cover many different aspects of what puzzles can do and why you should make them.
Giving helpful hints
“The sun rises when I set.
The Earth is my companion, and I am seen by all.
You all have seen me. What am I?”
Now some of you might be screaming the answer. I just came up with that riddle, and the answer was: MOON. As in, the moon. But what if you or your players didn’t get that?
The players could have thought of something else. Star, planets, dark matter or some other weird answer that is not moon. Most DMs will be in this situation at some point, despite using techniquest that should make this situation not happen. So, in this instance, what do you do?
There are a few options that you can use:
- Use a skill check.
- Give an extra hint.
- Let the player’s answer be the answer.
For using a skill check, the players just need to be stumped. Have them roll a wisdom/intelligence check or a skill that pertains to the riddle. In this case, nature would also work.
Be broad when allowing skill checks since players might need some sort of help. This way you can practically give them the answer with a sense of satisfaction. Their characters are telling the story, so it makes sense they might know what the players don’t. Incase this doesn’t sit well with you or your players roll poorly, there is always an extra hint.
An extra hint can be given if the players don’t respond quick enough to the riddle. After 5 minutes the riddle device/person is designed to give an extra prompt. Phrase it as if this was always the intent. “The image is slowly starting to change as you ponder this.” Have them panic for a little bit and then change it into the night sky showing the moon, stars, etc.
If your players STILL can’t get it, then you can always let their answer be good enough. The satisfaction of riddles comes from finally figuring out the puzzle. That is why even if you know how to make D&D puzzles, the players can’t always find the answer. They can’t read your mind, and some just might be terrible at puzzles.
If you still need help on how to drop helpful hints as a DM, we have an article dedicated to that here.
How to give helpful hints is important for when any puzzle fails, and that is why we put it right in the beginning. You will be stuck at times even when you create great puzzles, but now you have a safety net. With that safety net, let’s get into how to make D&D puzzles.
The 3 Clue Rule
This is a technique that has been around for a while. Everyone links it when they talk about how to make D&D puzzles and I won’t be the exception.
If you are interested in reading the source material here it is, but I am going to summarize it for you.
First, minimize points of failure. If you are making the party succeed/fail in 4 specific skill checks, you have 4 points of failure. Low rolls happen just like how we talked about in the previous section. That is why I suggest that you do not make a puzzle’s sole success based on skill checks.
If you want your players to solve something, you need to give clues. Hence the three clue rule from the Alexandrian.
“For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least 3 clues.”
Players never make things go according to plan. They go in circles, zig zag through what you thought would be the narrative, and make dungeon masters question the concept of sanity. Because of this, you should have multiple points where players can get the answer that they need. This does NOT include extra skill checks, extra hints, or player answers being acceptable.
In these multiple points, I highly suggest that you have multiple clues for your group. Put these clues at each point where they need to solve something in order to progress.
Here is an example:
Your group needs to find out that who the killer is. They have nothing to go on, but know where the murder scene is. The players go there and have a few options. They can talk to the witness to get a description, inspect the body to figure out who this was and investigate that angle, or find that the murder weapon is a special type of blade. One that is only made by a certain smith.
The Alexandrian talks about how you could use skill checks instead, such as allowing a medicine to find poison, investigate to get the letter tucked in a corner, or just roll a persuade to get the information from the witness. I strongly do not recommend using skill checks as your 3 points of failure! You might think that is okay, but players somehow surprisingly fail 3 checks that they should make a lot.
With that in mind, let us look at a different kind of puzzle.
Simplicity is key
Here is the countdown puzzle. Watch it and then come back here.
Now that you have seen this puzzle, it seems pretty simple. The players overthought their situation and gave everyone something to laugh about when they finally figured out the simple solution. One of the most important things in how to make D&D puzzles is making them simple.
Most people believe that puzzles should be hard and complex. If this were anything else, those people might be correct. We, however, are playing D&D. Unlike others who make puzzles for people to never solve we DMs NEED players to solve our content. This is why our puzzles are a little bit different.
They can be challenging, have clues to help solve the puzzle, and enhance your game as we will talk about later but they need to be simple. The simplicity required depends on your group, but think of the worst-case outcomes.
A: Your players solve the puzzle and move on with maybe a laugh at how easy that was due to them being so smart.
B: Your players get frustrated, can’t solve the puzzle, and the evening is ruined.
Looking at both options, which worst case scenario is more bearable? You know the answer. The worst case scenario doesn’t always happen, but it happens more often than it should if a puzzle is moderately difficult. This is why you need to have some way where the players can easily solve the puzzle.
We can combine the 3 clue method with this ideology as well. Make 1 hard puzzle or riddle, a second that is moderately hard, and a 3rd that is so easy that anyone could solve it. If you are concerned about your players’ ability to solve the puzzle/puzzles, then make them even easier.
It is always better to make puzzles simpler rather than harder, but should you even make content gating puzzles?
Content gating puzzles
Content gating puzzles are possibly the worst puzzles to create. When considering how to make D&D puzzles, you should avoid content gating puzzles when possible with few exceptions. With that said, what makes a puzzle content gating?
Content gating puzzles restrict the party’s progression in the story. They cannot progress forward until this puzzle or puzzles has/have been solved. It can grind a session/campaign to a halt, and should only be used when trying to make a simple point.
The countdown puzzle mentioned above is alright since the puzzle is so simple that players will eventually solve it by literally doing nothing. If your puzzle is any more complicated than this, then it should not restrict player progression! That is the only time that content gating puzzles are okay. When they are so simple the party will solve it without thought, and if it is trying to convey some sort of message.
For the other puzzles, we do not want them to restrict player progression. Instead, they should be used as optional content. For example, a door has a puzzle. It still follows the 3 clue rule with different hints in parts of the dungeon, and players can use skill checks and more to potentially find the answer. If they cannot find the answer, then that is alright. It is just one of life’s mysteries that doesn’t need to be solved but will eat away at them during the night. This is alright, but there should always be a purpose to your puzzles.
Giving puzzles purpose
We have discussed how to give useful hints and different options on how to create puzzles, but now we need to talk about giving them purpose. One of the biggest flaws, when DMs make puzzles, is that they lack an overall purpose other than ‘do this to get further.’ We have already talked about content gating puzzles, and how you should not use them. This already destroys most DM conceptions on why puzzles should exist, so when figuring out how to make D&D puzzles we must also figure out their purpose.
Generally, there are 4 reasons why puzzles exist.
- Content gating puzzles (don’t do this if possible).
- To give an extra reward such as loot.
- To enhance the world lore.
- Foreshadow what is to come.
We have already discussed content gating puzzles, but what about extra loot? Why not make a puzzle that isn’t required to be solved, but instead gives extra loot?
These puzzles are a bit tricky to pull off well. If the players know that there is loot behind a puzzle, they will view it as content gating. They need to get past that puzzle in order to get what is rightfully theirs, and thus it becomes content gating. If the players don’t know what is behind the puzzle, it is optional and one of life’s great mysteries.
This is why you should not tell your players what is behind the puzzle. Just let them figure it out if they were able to do so and get the reward. As for the other reasons….
Some puzzles are meant to hide things. How to make D&D puzzles like this is fairly simple. Make a puzzle that either locks away world lore, or gives it to the players.
If you make a puzzle that locks away world lore, then it could just be a door that needs 3 elements or some other puzzle that merely bars the way. Through this door is a secret that the players didn’t know before and might either shake the foundations of what they know, or enhance their connection to the world around them through this secret that had to be hidden away. Such as the reason why the civilization collapsed, or whatever fits your game.
This all being said, you should make a puzzle that is related to that secret. If the puzzle contains the secret for a collapsed civilization, make the players give the hierarchy of the civilization. This way the players are already learning more about the secret and will be invested in the lore they are about to receive.
A puzzle that gives the players world lore is a bit more complex. These puzzles are meant convey something to the players that they didn’t know before. While our above example of the civilization’s hierarchy might be considered a world lore puzzle, it requires different steps which shouldn’t be required for a puzzle that gives world lore.
Giving world lore is the difference. Instead of making players find and come up with the answer, the puzzle itself should have the answer inbuilt into it with easy means to be solved. A slide puzzle that just takes some time to solve, a message that isn’t fully filled in due to time scratching out some words, these are both great examples.
A slide puzzle might reveal an image that will be solved if the players spend some time to do so, and the slide puzzle will reveal an image that should cause speculation. In the same manner, a message with missing words will cause speculation. The implications of what the message means might be world shattering or just give some helpful information. Either way, if a puzzle is meant to add to the lore of the game then the players should be able to solve the puzzle with the puzzle right in front of them. Solve it with ease, and leave a little speculation as to what it all means.
These type of puzzles can lead to foreshadowing if you know where the campaign is going, and that can be a great purpose for any puzzle.
The last purpose for when considering how to make D&D puzzles is foreshadowing. We alluded to this in our previous section, but you can reveal lore that is mysterious, open to interpretation, and will give information on what is to come.
Many DMs would just consider giving players a prophecy on what will happen. This can be done through images, words, or other means. But foreshadowing what will happen through prophecy can be a type of puzzle in and of itself. The meanings should be clear as the players go through the world, and it will always eat away at them until they know what the puzzle was talking about.
Another type of foreshadowing puzzle is strangely enough one that tells of the past. The players find out about an ancient story. A story that they might know (depending on a history check) that will happen again to them. For example, a puzzle might have the answer be a hydra in reference to what beast the great hero of the past slew. The players are in the same dungeon that the hero is buried in and it turns out the hero didn’t actually kill the hydra. The party will.
These types of foreshadowing are meant to keep your players on their toes and are very useful if your campaign has a major item or threat that they need to be aware of. A great example of this is in the Curse of Strahd adventure.
In CoS (Curse of Strahd) the players early on hear about specific fortunes. These fortunes are clues that will help the players find very important items, allies, and information. One speaks of an ally and where to find them, 3 speak of items, and the last fortune speaks of Strahd. The players need to find the ally and items to have a chance to defeat Strahd, but you can’t force them to get these items. So what do you do? Why not make a puzzle for them to dwell on. Give a vague location and make them work on finding these items.
This makes the players desire these powerful items and allies, while you the DM do not need to force your players to find these key items. It works out very nicely, and makes your players take agency instead of taking it away from them.
There are many different ideas on how to make D&D puzzles, but they boil down to a simple statement.
When considering how to make D&D puzzles, you need a few things. First, give useful hints, options, and a purpose.
When making hints be sure to give helpful hints with skill checks, your own hints, and possibly letting the players’ answer be an actual answer to the puzzle.
Next, consider your puzzle options. There are of course more puzzle types out there, but we focused on the 3 clue approach to give options. Next, we made sure that puzzles were optional instead of content gating. You have many different puzzle ideas, but they should always be simpler rather than harder in order to give your players more options instead of frustration.
Lastly, puzzles should have a purpose. Slapping down a puzzle for the sake of making a puzzle is a terrible idea. We talked about the 4 reasons why puzzles exist, so always consider “why is this puzzle here?” After you have figured out which of the 4 purposes your puzzle serves, make sure that it fits into your game. If it is content gating, make it simple. If the puzzle is optional, make the players have to interact with their environment to solve the puzzle or make the puzzle itself give the information.
If you want to use riddles as a point of failure, then check out our article on riddles to help you out.
With that, I hope that this has helped you to create amazing puzzles for you and your group! If this isn’t enough, I do have something else to help you out a little bit since puzzles are hard to construct.
The puzzles at dungeon vault should give you some more ideas and tools to work with. They have images that I personally use to help illustrate puzzles, and I use them a lot when designing my puzzle. You might find our affiliate just as helpful as I have, so check them out and decide for yourself!