To Puzzle or Not to Puzzle, That is the Question

I’ve seen a lot of discussion on puzzles in DnD and other TTPRGs.  Seems to me DMs have four options:

  1. Just don’t use ‘em – If your party doesn’t like figuring out a puzzle, or you are having a tough time creating/finding one that engages your players, then just don’t bother.  It’s not worth the effort if people aren’t having fun.
  2. Make a skill check (or relevant mechanic to your game).  You don’t ask your players to prove their strength by breaking down the door in real life, so why make them prove their intelligence by trying to discern the puzzle you set up for them?  If you want stakes, make it a higher target to succeed and add consequences for failure.
  3. Set up the puzzle, and create a visual representation of the puzzle itself.  A picture, some cards, anything visual that allows the players to solve it.  Some players will love this, and some will hate it.  Again, it’s asking a player to break down a door instead of roll a die.  But if your party LIKES it, go with it!
  4. (My favorite) Create puzzles that are engaging, give bonuses to characters that would be more likely to solve them, are unique in theme or mechanic each time, and most importantly have some meaning to the story!

How do I do that last one?

  • Don’t make all puzzles a test of intelligence.  Other stats matter!
  • Add an engaging mechanic (I use dice rolls because I love them, but it could be cards, tokens, pictures, anything). 
  • Keep it short and simple. No one wants eight rounds of puzzle solving.

Example:  I am in a dungeon, and the magical artefact my party wants to acquire is in the next room.  I decide to protect this item with a magical, impenetrable door that can only be opened by solving the magic combination lock on the outside. (I’m leaning heavily on magic here, it’s just an example).  Using brute force doesn’t succeed, lockpicking skills fail, and any other improvisations are railroaded out of use .  I’m just determined as the DM that they solve a puzzle for story purposes (remember, this is an example for using an engaging puzzle, not an example of good DM skills, try not to rob the party members of their agency – if you want to let your party skip the puzzle and blast through the door, please let them).

“The heavy stone doorway trembles with each strike against it, absorbing magic energy directed its way, but showing no signs it can be breached.  No keyhole, no handle, no mechanism reveals itself as an obvious way to enter.  Only a round circle emanating tiny daggers of blue light through the darkness suggests a puzzling clue for entry.  Numerical runes rotate and swirl around the circle, transforming momentarily from blue to purple when touched.”

Your party gets it.  It’s a combination lock.  Touch the runes in the right order to open the door.  You could just roll a check, and upon success explain that the runes align and glow a bright white before the door opens in epic fashion, then open the door.  If you want to add stakes, add a trap.  Every time a party member fails the skill check, darts shoot out of the walls to inflict d4 poison damage.  It’s probably the most traditional, and easiest way to handle puzzles.

The more engaging way, IMHO, is to add a mechanic (it’s a game after all) that allows the players some real satisfaction with solving the puzzle, while at the same time not making it a tedious process, or one that stalls the game when no one can figure out what the heck you were thinking in your cleverly designed mind trick masterpiece… (you know who you are).

So what do we do here?  Well, the party needs to guess the combination.  So, let’s say you’ve chosen a five-number combination, where each number is 1-20 (in this case, let’s say 3, 5, 10, 12, 17) to represent the runes on this magical lock.  Have the players each roll a d20 and tell them which are the correct options.  (Don’t worry about the order of the numbers, unless you really want to annoy everyone.  Just assume that rolling the right number means guessing the correct rune AND in the correct spot).

If this puzzle tests intelligence, allow players to re-roll a number of times equal to their INT modifier.  If the puzzle is testing how fast they can hit the combination, use the DEX modifier.  If the puzzle was auditory instead of visual, maybe use a CHA test (players speak a password instead of guessing a combination).  Switch it up!  And though I’m using modifiers common to DnD you can obviously adapt this method to other games.  Give a bonus to the characters (not players) who would be more likely to solve your puzzle so that you emphasize the character’s abilities.

Back to our example.  Even after a few re-rolls due to modifiers, the players have now guessed 3 of the 5 numbers correctly.  What now?  Depends on your alignment (no, not the players’ alignments, YOU the DM’s alignment!).  If you want to punish them, spring a trap.  I discussed poison darts above.  If you want to give them all another chance, including re-rolls do that.  Of course, if you just keep re-rolling forever, then what was the point of adding the puzzle in the first place?  Has it actually given the players a feeling of satisfaction to solve it? Did it ever really matter to the story?  (Keep this in mind, we’ll discuss in a minute.) If you want to reward your players for partially correct answers, double the modifying effect for each successive roll, greatly increasing the chance of success each turn (keep it from getting tedious).

I would combine the options.  Here’s my rundown:

  1. I would allow all the players to go through one round, including re-rolls based on whatever modifier I chose.  For every “correct guess”/successful roll, I will give each member of the party one additional re-roll on the subsequent try.  If they got three correct, they each get three re-rolls on the next try PLUS whatever modifier.
  2. After the second try, for each failure, I would spring a trap that causes very minor damage to everyone nearby.  (I’m not punishing individual characters for MY puzzle but you might wish to do so).  If they got any more correct, I’d add that to the number of re-rolls in the next try.  If they had three before, and got one more, they now get four re-rolls in the next round, PLUS those modifiers. (I’m trying to get them to succeed!)
  3. If they can’t get all five numbers by the third try, I spring an encounter.  A guard (or something or someone) has been alerted by their attempts and attacks the party.  Once they vanquish their foe, they try yet again, or simply make that the point at which they succeed without having to continue rolling.
  4. Repeat in whatever way you see fit, making it easier to roll the correct answer or more punishing for failure – that’s part of your skill set and style as a DM.  Keep it balanced, as it seems silly to roll a d20 82 times around the table until it inevitably hits the single correct target.
  5. Once they succeed, open the door (obviously) but also do something so that solving the puzzle means something.

I’ll repeat that last step, because I can not stress it enough. 


This is the point of having them solve a puzzle.  Similar to battling a foe in a combat encounter, the party gets some sort of reward.  Something similar should be done here as well.  After a few rounds of rolls, re-rolls, a trap, and a guard, one final set of rolls the door opens…

“As the blue lights swirl into formation, their light glow becomes a hot white flash, and the door vanishes, leaving only the faint odor of ancient startled dust in the space where it had stood.  As you approach, you see what appears to be a bottomless pit encircling the room.  In less than a moment, firm earth rises from the depths to fill it.  The artefact you’ve been searching for is in your grasp, as is a hoard of other treasures.”

Now, you don’t actually have to give the party additional treasures.  This might not even be the last step in getting that artefact.  Maybe the big bad suddenly appears.  Maybe the artefact is transported away.  Maybe it was not even in the room at all!  It’s your story, so it’s up to you to figure this out.  However, entering the room revealed that if they had broken through the door, additional obstacles would have kept them from their target of desire.  By solving the puzzle, they made it easier on themselves (there’s part of the reward), they now have access to additional treasures that might have been lost if using brute force or magic (there’s another part of the reward).

And now as DM, I also explain that taking the time to work out the combination has given them a new familiarity with the runes involved.  Now, anytime the written script of this language (choose one that fits your setting/story) appears, you can put together simple words and phrases to assist you in future encounters.  (This might mean you just let the party members learn the written form of this language, or that you give them advantage when rolling an Intelligence (Investigation) check at a scene that includes this script, or any other reward that seems fitting having come from their brief study of these runes.  Is this realistic? Who cares, it’s a game!)

This may or may not be the perfect fit for you and your party, but hopefully it allows you to think a bit more about what role puzzles have in tabletop gaming, whether to include them at your table, and if you do how to implement them in a way that keeps the game fun for everyone.

Some Ideas for a Simple, Engaging Puzzle Mechanic

All party members roll a die (you choose), with a modifier (you choose) for re-rolls, trying to land on the same number (you choose OR they choose).

  • Example 1: Tell the party to roll a d6.  If they land on 6, they stop. If they do not, they may re-roll a number of times equal to their INT modifier. If they all have 6, reward, if not punish. Repeat similar to as discussed above.
  • Example 2: Same as above, only instruct them to roll a d4, and let them choose which to keep.  Allow them to change each round if they wish until they all get the same number.

One party member at a time tries to roll any die (you choose or they choose) doing simple arithmetic between each one to land on a target number exactly.

  • Example 1: Each player rolls a d20 twice, then proceeds. First roll is 12, then 2 (12×2=24), then 4 (24×4=96), then 10 (96-10=86), then 5 (96+5=101), then 1, (101-1=100). Got it in six rolls, reward/punish accordingly.
  • Example 2: Each party member rolls a d4 and adds the total plus the highest modifier (you choose) of one of the players .  If higher than 10, success.

Have players draw a single playing card from a standard deck (where Jack=11, Queen=12, King=13) .

  • Example 1: Each player takes a card, and all the even ones are added together.  If the total is 8 or higher, success.
  • Example 2: Each player takes a card, adds/subtracts the relevant modifier (you choose) then add the party total. 8 or higher is a success.
  • Tweak the target based on your mechanic, and be sure to reward or punish accordingly.

Have players draw tokens from a bag.

  • Example 1: Each player takes a number of tokens equal to their modifier (you choose) + 1.  All tokens of a certain color (or size, or shape, or material, etc.) are added together, attempting to reach a specific target.  Reward/punish as you see fit each round until the number is reached. (This will greatly depend on how many tokens were originally in the bag and how many different types were included.)
  • Example 2: Each player takes 5 tokens, with the goal of keeping one type (color, size, shape, material, etc.), and they return a number of unwanted tokens equal to their modifier (you choose).  After the round, the party must have more of the wanted tokens than the unwanted tokens to succeed.  Repeat, reward, and punish as necessary.

Remember, when choosing the relevant modifier for any of these mini-game type puzzles, try to pick one that makes sense so that the strengths and weaknesses of characters (not players) are actually a part of the challenge! Also remember, this is only a start.  Use your imagination to conjure any number of simple mechanics you can think of to “play out” the solving of the puzzle. Whether your puzzle is a lock on a door, an adventurous maze, a lyrical contest, a deft balancing act, or any other possibility, there is no reason to stick to only one type, mix and match as you continue your adventures!