Devious Dungeon Puzzles

PuzzleTrapDoorOne of the things I want out of this Blog Carnival is some talk about how to make good puzzles for RPGs. I feel like I’m not the best at this, but I’m going to go ahead and take a stab at some pointers. I’m pretty proud of how I did with Zemail’s puzzle door. I’ll draw some principles from that, and also from David Morgan-Mar’s words on puzzle design.

Some of the details of these concepts will vary from system to system, but I’ll keep my discussion as general as possible.

  1. Puzzles should thematically fit the dungeon they are in. Any thematic mismatch may seem like a hint or clue and become a red herring. If the thematic mismatch is meant to be a clue, then great! Anything out of place is a good hint at how to solve the puzzle.
  2. RPG puzzles should use character skills somehow. Puzzles that don’t use character skills only challenge the player and distract from the game (though many players like solving puzzles, it’s not necessarily what the game is about). This can range from particular skills being necessary to solve the puzzle to skills providing additional hints in a variety of ways.
  3. Puzzles come in all sizes. A puzzle can be as small as a series of buttons used to open a door and as large as a massive complex with switches throughout that change the structure of the dungeon, as in the Manyriver.
  4. Puzzles come in all types. There are mechanical puzzles, riddles, tactical puzzles, social puzzles, and so on and so on. Playing three political factions to a desired end is as much a puzzle as rearranging tiles to open a door.
  5. In RPGs, puzzles don’t need to have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ outcome. An approach to a puzzle that is imperfect does not always result in failure, but maybe in a partial success. Puzzles can be binary, but it is just as valid to have a somewhat positive outcome for a partially correct approach. Puzzles that can be iterated on can use a partial success to indicate that the players are close, such as opening 4 of 5 gates to indicate that the players are 80% of the way there.
  6. In RPGs, there should be ways around the puzzle. Solving the puzzle should be more satisfying that going around, in general. Solving the puzzle should also be the easier route. However, if a party of all berserkers wants to hack through the puzzle door, they should be able to wear themselves out before being ambushed.
  7. Puzzles should be compelling on multiple levels. The players must believe that the reward for solving the puzzle is worth the effort. The first intuitive leap in actually solving the puzzle should also be quick enough that they immediately feel able to solve it so they will engage in it.
  8. Most puzzles should have some cost involved in iterating, or not be iteratable, to discourage guessing and hasty decisions.

Please comment below if you have any additional puzzle insights. Like I said, I’m no expert here.

Later today I’ll post a puzzle for Grethgan‘s portion of Korgaran’s Succession that I’m working on. I’m trying to keep these principles in mind as I do.

It took a little longer to type up than expected, but here’s Grethgan’s puzzle lock.

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