We get it, DM. Really. Dungeons are hard to make and life gets in the way of prep work, so of course a puzzle seems like a nice thing to put in. It both uses session time and still presents a challenge. (Not to mention puzzles are in D&D’s DNA.)
But, ah, there’s a thing we’ve been meaning to talk to you about. It’s not so much that your puzzles are awful, so much as they would make Indiana Jones reconsider finding the Holy Grail to save his father in The Last Crusade.
But what are some common complaints about puzzles? What can a DM do to help make imaginary pitfalls have less figurative pitfalls?
Well, for one thing–
Ask Yourself If Puzzles Are Even RIGHT For Your Group
Some people love puzzles, some people hate them with the sort of passion that inspires Shakespearean plays.
And sometimes it’s not even a matter of loving/hating puzzles. Sometimes your group just isn’t puzzle-ready. Not just merely for lack of smarts, I mean. Sometimes a shift before game time has left them with just enough energy to do all the other D&D stuff. Maybe they’ve got other things on their mind. Or maybe- elephant in the room- you’re all over twenty-one and alcohol is a thing…
Yeah, you’re missing out on a gameplay enhancer, but such an enhancer can ruin your party’s experience.
Oh! Speaking of, you know what else could ruin your party’s experience?
Your Puzzle Seems Out of Place
Before your party stands a riddle in ancient script that they have to solve before the door before you opens.
Oh, and they’re not in ancient ruins, but rather on an pirate airship that was built a few months before.
As hard as puzzles might be to merely create, effort should still be invested in making sure the puzzle actually fits in with your setting. (For example, the pirate airship door might actually need to be unlocked with a mechanism that looks an awful like a sliding puzzle game.) After all, a cardinal virtue of every good DM is immersing your party in the adventure.
Which can be really hard if–
It’s Hard To Picture The Puzzle
You know what’s even harder than coming up with a puzzle that fits in your session’s setting? Describing the darn thing!
Sometimes if a clear enough picture isn’t made, your players can’t even imagine what the puzzle looks like, let alone solve it. This can be especially disastrous if your puzzle is on the complex side.
I can assure you that this in an uncomfortable experience on both sides of the DM screen. Players don’t like feeling stupid, and DMs don’t like feeling like their puzzle doesn’t make any sense.
Which is where visual aids can come in handy here, be they simple charts or a whole online shop’s worth of cool puzzle aids. Play your visual aids right, and the level of immersion can achieve the sort of altitude that NASA wishes it could pull off.
Either way, make sure you give your players everything they need to solve the puzzle. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s awful if–
The Puzzle Pieces Aren’t All There
You know that feeling when you’re this close to solving a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle, only to find out that a handful of pieces are missing? Yeah, that’s pretty much the same reaction to having a puzzle with a similar situation in D&D.
This issue actually comes in a lot of flavors. Maybe it’s a matter of you outright hiding parts of the puzzle (i.e. mechanisms players need to mess with to lower a bridge). Or perhaps you’re stingy with clues, not even springing for cryptic ones. Or maybe you’ve actually buried the answer to a riddle in the dozens of pages of world lore that- while it’s genuinely great and all- your players haven’t exactly absorbed yet.
Bottom line, make sure your players have the means to solve the puzzle. You’re here to challenge them, not crush their will to play.
Oh, speaking of-
You’re Making Failure Too Harsh
Nobody likes a TPK. And unless your goal is to end up on r/rpghorrorstories, you shouldn’t want to destroy your players just for the sake of watching something burn.
Which is why it’s really frustrating when not solving a Rubik’s cube under a minute has you viciously murdered.
Consequences can make a game exciting. But like with everything, it needs to be balanced. A DM shouldn’t kneecap a party over a failed puzzle solving, but should instead put them at a reasonable amount of risk. (For example, kill a player, but make sure one person who knows Revivify is still okay.)
And another thing a DM shouldn’t do?
You’re Only Allowing One Answer
Many DMs will tell you that you can’t plan for everything in a D&D session. For example, your players have to figure out which of the two evil mages is the real one and which is an illusion. You walk into the game with the expectation of having them solve it thanks to the old “the real one tells the truth, the fakes tell lies, and you can only ask them one question” gambit.
Then your warlock gets the bright idea to use Magic Missile, sending a bolt to each of the evil mages and figuring out which one’s the real one via brute force.
A bad DM would get mad and shove everyone back onto the railroad. A good DM would appreciate the ingenuity and move on.
But all this begs some questions. What if there isn’t any ingenuity? What if my party’s drawing a total blank? What do I do?!
Well, it’s only a problem if–
You Don’t Have A Back Door
Chances are, you’re playing with average people, not MacArthur Fellows. Or maybe your players are having an off day. That’s all fine. And it’s also nothing to be worried about.
Just as much as there’s no shame in given your players a way out of they’re struggling.
This can come in many forms. Maybe a skill check allows them to find a clue. Maybe an NPC drops in with a cryptic hint. Or maybe you take the solution proposed by the loudest player and make it canon.
Okay, maybe not that last one.