Puzzles in Role Playing Games

It’s no secret that I enjoy puzzles, but I’m not exactly an expert puzzle solver. Thankfully, I have plenty of people around me that are far more talented in designing and solving puzzles than I am. However, I do love making puzzles that fit into a story. I’ve learned a few things after trial and error… and error.

The definition of puzzle is rather loose. Dictionary.com has about 10 definations, but generally defines it as “a toy, problem, or other contrivance designed to amuse by presenting difficulties to be solved by ingenuity or patient effort.” Puzzles can range from riddles to more complex logic games. I’ve used a few different types, but here are some general guidelines for using puzzles in an rpg game.

  1. Puzzles should have a plot purpose.
    1. Every player wants to have a reason for character to be solving this puzzle. If it doesn’t seem important to what they are doing, they’ll usually avoid it. 
  2. Puzzles should have a way around them and/or hints.
    1. No matter how easy you think the puzzle is, your group will get stuck on a puzzle. I ran the same game for 7 different groups. All but one got stuck on the same riddle, yet all of them said the answer within the first few seconds. The riddles was “There is no pendulum in this clock, so what does it lack besides a tock.” (I stole this riddle from a cartoon called Scooby Doo and the Boo brothers. The inspiration for this particular game.) Almost everyone said A tick right away. Yet, the leap that that meant attic usually took some hinting. Because of the way this particular game was designed I couldn’t give a work around, but I did give in character hints when I could.
    2. One example of work around, was when I created a liquid puzzle. If the characters got it right, they drank a potion of true seeing. If they wanted to skip the puzzle they just needed a 25 on their investigate/search check to find the item they needed.
  3. Puzzles are best with props.
    1. If you’re going to take the time to have a puzzle in the game. It’s best to do it with something hands on. Having an actual scroll for that clue sealed with wax, far more interesting than simple a piece of paper. I keep reams of fake parchment paper, and wax with seals always ready. Food coloring in clear soda can also be fun. I’m also always on the look out for props.
  4. Puzzles can test the players or they can test the characters.
    1. If you want to simply test your players you can throw all the stats out the window. This isn’t a horrible idea, but it does cause some issues when your players are stumped.
    2. On the other hand, when you want to test the characters what do you do when your Wizard Int 20 can’t solve the riddle? It’s really up to you. A few things I would suggest is having the other players give them “ideas” or allow them to use their knowledge to get a hint. Those 10 ranks in history might actually come in handy! Encourage the players to use their skills if they’re stuck, though you want to try and never get to the frustration points.
  5. Puzzles should be rather straight forward.
    1. If you want complex puzzles, I’m not sure RPGs are the right place to have them. That logic puzzle that takes 45 minutes might tune most of your players out, and that just isn’t fun. If you really like detailed puzzles you should look into puzzle hunts. http://playdash.org is a great place to start.
  6. The Puzzle should be something everyone can solve together. 
    1. It’s not fun sitting and watching someone solve the puzzle while you can’t do anything. Make as many puzzles for everyone as you can. It’s even more fun if they have to figure out how to work together to do it. An example of this is if they realize they must pull a lever and pull a rope at the same time from different parts of the room, while reading a message upside down. This gives plenty of jobs for the characters to do and all feel important.
  7. It should be fun.
    1. In the end, the number one goal should be your players having fun. If the puzzle isn’t fun, do your best to move on without too much pain. The goal shouldn’t be to prove how smart you are, but how smart your players and their characters are.

Some great places to get ideas for puzzles in your game is playing an escape room or puzzle hunt. You can find information on escape rooms in your area here: http://escaperoomdirectory.com/. Dash is a good puzzle hunt to start with if you’re new http://playdash.org.


One thought on “Puzzles in Role Playing Games

  1. I LOVE puzzles in games, and this is a great list of musts – especially #1. There are so many ways to work puzzles into the plot… are you discovering things about the big bad? Did an NPC speak in riddles? Was a secret society hiding their artifacts? It can help bring new players together too.


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