The RPGBOT.Podcast is celebrating 1 year and 100,000 downloads!

RPGBOT.Podcast S2E11 – Puzzles

Show Notes

In this episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast, we discuss puzzles in tabletop RPGs. We explore methods for running puzzles during your game, how to make character capabilities matter, and some historical examples of puzzles that you can borrow to use in your games.

If you’ve enjoyed the show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, and rate us on Spotify or your favorite podcast app. It’s a quick, free way to support the podcast, and helps us reach new listeners.

Special thanks to @baelzar for the question of the week.

Materials Referenced in this Episode

Transcript

Randall 

Welcome to the RPGBOT.Podcast. I’m Randall James, your puzzled puzzler. With me is Tyler Kamstra.

Tyler 

Hi everybody.

Randall 

And Random Powell.

Random 

Evening.

Randall 

All right, Tyler, what’s going on?

Tyler 

Well, tonight we’re going to talk about puzzles. Puzzles are a staple of Dungeons and Dragons going back to the earliest, earliest days of the game. Essentially, as soon as the game stopped being just violence puzzles were one of the first things that came in. And at the same time, puzzles have been one of those things that people have struggled to do well for as long as Dungeons and Dragons has been a game. So tonight, we’re going to talk about how to handle puzzles, some examples of different methods for handling puzzles that might suit your tastes, and we’ll go through some examples of how a puzzle is handled in each of the methods we’re going to propose. In my mind, there are essentially three different ways to handle puzzles. Method one is generally the method that people go to by default. It’s the all player method, quote, unquote. So this is essentially you put away the character sheets, you hand your players a puzzle of some kind, and the players are expected to then solve that puzzle on their own before the game can proceed, before they unlock the door or get the treasure or save the princess, whatever. Method two is, essentially, players with bonuses from their character stats. So it’s very similar to method one, the all player method, but when players get stuck, the DM can give the players hints based on their character stats. This is usually where people end up after trying method one and getting stuck on a puzzle. If your players have relevant skills or tool proficiencies, or high intelligence or something like that, the DM might give them hints or just help in general to solve the puzzle. If you’ve read the section on puzzles in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and a lot of other books, this is generally the recommended advice. Like, here’s this puzzle, here’s some skill checks that you might use to give the players hints. Method three is the all character method. So instead of players attempting to solve a puzzle that you give to the players, the characters themselves encounter a puzzle. Instead of testing the player’s wits with potentially an assist from their character stats, you’re testing the characters. So the characters encounter a puzzle, and rather than the player saying like, Oh yes, with my real world knowledge of physics, I push button B and pull lever C and the door pops open and shoots confetti. Instead, the characters themselves must make skill checks apply their own capabilities, use tools, use spells, use items. In real life, the players may or may not have seen an abacus. But in the game, these characters have never seen an abacus. There’s no such thing as an abacus. Because who wants to do math if you live in a fantasy land?

Random 

I mean, that depends on whether or not you subscribe to the belief that magic is just fancy math. One thing that I did just want to cut in here with real quick. Puzzles… there’s, there’s a lot of things that can be puzzles. A very standard thing that you might encounter in a dungeon is like some kind of physical representation in the book usually like a picture and then, like, a riddle to help you try and figure something out. Anything can be, you know, if you want to just like go with a straight riddle. Physical handouts can be really cool if you’re in, if you’re at an in-person table because it engages the players really well. A thing you could do is just hand your group one of those three by three sliding tile things to make a picture. If you want that to be a combo lock on a door, magic has done weirder things. Absolutely go nuts. I have a perfect rendition of Pikachu, now can I come in? You could even make it a humorous hint as to what was behind that door. If what you have is Pikachu, and then congratulations, it’s a Pikachu. Don’t ask how that got into this D&D game. Not important. While I’m on this sidebar, this is something that you’re really going to want to talk to your players about ahead of time. Because puzzles can be intensely frustrating for players. If you bar progression behind a puzzle that can end up creating a really unpleasant experience for your players. What that means is, and again, this is a thing where it’s gonna behoove you to know what you’re planning to do. At the end of the previous session, say, Hey, guys, we’re going to come across this puzzle. I’m really excited about presenting it this way. Are you guys up for that? And take feedback. As long as everyone’s up for that, great, then you have the buy in. Go in, give the puzzle. And even still figure out what…. we’ll be going down into this here in a bit. Have some hints that you can give them either just straight meta hints if you’re going for like, method one, or some in-character hints that you can give them. Because, while it’s also been around forever, it’s been frustrating kind of forever.

Randall 

Yeah, I’ll say I want to completely destroy the trichotomy that we’ve created. So we have the idea of like the player, which is straight meta. There is no character, there’s only player. We have the player plus character working in tandem the way they’re meant to be in a tabletop game. And then we have the, you know, oops all character, like, I’m not going to give you any idea of what’s actually happening here. I think we all recognize there’s kind of a spectrum here. Tyler, when you talk about method two and, like, giving hints, sometimes it might actually be you have to pass some skill to find out a necessary or a supplemental fact even. So it’s even more than a hint, like, it’s a necessary component of moving the puzzle forward. But the player is still going to have to know what to do with that in a way that to the character sometimes it’s just not going to make sense. So it’s really a wonderful way for the player and the character to work together.

Random 

This is where it becomes really critical to be aware that if you are going to set something like what Randall was talking about, where it is a supplemental required fact that you hit on on a knowledge check, for instance, what if every one fails?

Randall 

Yeah.

Random 

You need to plan for that. Because if you go in and you’re like, Oh, well, yeah, of course, players are gonna… and then you’re staring at a pile full of threes that people roll. It’s like I said, the DC is five, what are you guys doing? That’s just something to be really, really careful of, because that’s where you immediately generate that instant feeling of helplessness. Because if, you know, if you’re that player, you’re like, Well, great. We all rolled fives. I guess we just, I guess we live here now. Pull out the adamantine shovel and try digging around the puzzle. Because that’s realistically your your path forward.

Randall 

Yeah. And hey, don’t worry folks at home, we’ve got a plan for you. It’s gonna be great.

Random 

It can be great.

Randall 

Alright, let’s let’s hop into it. So let’s talk about what it looks like to have an all player puzzle. And as we were putting other notes, we were talking about it. I think I had the perfect example. Have any of you at home… been to an escape room?

Random 

I have.

Randall 

Folks at home I bet have, too. Tyler, have you ever been to an escape room?

Tyler 

With Random, yes.

Randall 

Okay, good. Awesome. So you think about it. It’s like a murder mystery escape room, or like you have to stop a bomb from going off or something like this. And so you go in and you’re put in a room and they’re like, well, we would really love it if you caught the murderer or stop the bomb. But before you do that, if you lift this mattress, the slats holding up the mattress are color coded. And we need you to put them in ROY G BIV order so you can get a clue. That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It has nothing to do with the character you’re playing in the role playing scenario, right? Like oh, yeah, you know, I’m here to stop a bomb. I’m not… I’m not really. I’m here to solve 16 puzzles in sequence before the hour goes off, and you kick me out. Pretty much that is a player only puzzle.

Tyler 

Yeah, that’s a fantastic example. It’s a puzzle for the fun of solving a puzzle in a lot of ways. And, yeah, escape rooms are a great comparison. Obviously, I don’t expect people to interrupt their D&D game to go have field trip to an escape room.

Random 

How awesome would that be?

Tyler 

Yeah. Hey, if you’re missing a player, maybe just do that instead one day.

Random 

Like, the DM just next week’s session, meet up at this address. No explanation.

Randall 

It’s like we’re not going LARPing. We’re kind of going LARPing.

Tyler 

Not that there’s anything wrong with LARPing.

Randall 

You’re yelling at the person on the microphone, I rolled a 20 just tell me what the clue is so I can get out of here.

Tyler 

Yes. So escape rooms are a great example, but if you don’t have an escape room in your house, or wherever you’re playing DnD. More likely, you might do an all player puzzle either discurbed, er, described verbally. Or you might hand them some kind of prop. This could be as simple as you hand them a literal jigsaw puzzle and say “sort this out.” Or it can be, like, I have shredded a piece of paper that I wrote a message on. Put the pieces together to figure out the message. It could be like a cipher or something. Here’s the decoder thing. Here’s the piece of paper with the encoded message, figure it out. You have this long before monsters storm into the room. I don’t know, maybe you hand them the Zodiac killer’s message and say like, Hey, oh, wait, my D&D Group figured this out in two minutes. What happened?

Randall 

I question your D&D group at that point. I think there’s a lot of rewarding structure in a puzzle like this. Because you… I think a lot of folks who play tabletop games can become completely embedded, can completely become immersed iolving that puzzle, bluntly, to the point where you’re not even thinking about the game, or the overall scenario you’re in, because the only thing you want to do is solve the puzzle. So can it be very fun? Absolutely. Can it also break the immersion of the fact you’re playing a fantasy based tabletop game? Yeah, kinda.

Random 

For an all player thing… And kind of looping back around to what I was saying about don’t necessarily use this to gate progression. Very early in my career, I was playing through a campaign that we won’t go into very many details for because hoo boy, what a show. We were given as a reward, this bow. And all by itself, it was a magical bow. But this bow also had seven, basically ROY G BIV arrows with it. There was, like, a almost epic riddle that came with it. And if you solve the riddle, it would tell you how to activate each of the arrows and what they did. The bow by itself could still be used as a magic bow. But then, if you, you know, solved the all player puzzle, then you got extra stuff. So that’s just, like, that sort of thing. If you can figure out how to do that, instead of gating progression behind it, I think you’re gonna end up with it, particularly if that’s your way to, like, introduce people to puzzles or if that’s your way to try and drag people like me who don’t really like puzzles into a puzzle setting. That can be a really helpful tool to show people, you know, engage with as much as you want. It’s just bonus. If you want to go ham on it, absolutely go ham. And if you don’t, then you still get a neat bow and you just don’t get the extra cool artifact level arrows.

Randall 

Yeah, I love the idea. If you’re going to do like a player, no character puzzle, having it be a take it with you puzzle is fantastic. I’ll also say, you know, we’ve done whole shows talking about how to engage the players away from the game and keep people excited for the next round. What better than a player-only puzzle that people can actually be talking about and thinking about in the background. So that when you come back from next session, like, hey, we talked about this. Does it have anything to do with this? Like, you know, is it A, B or C. Like, that can be a really great way of getting folks engaged, so that if they solve it by the next session, maybe there is some bonus carrying into the next session.

Tyler 

Even if the players get stuck on the puzzle, we did a podcast episode on failure that might provide some interesting advice on how to handle that. Failure doesn’t have to be the end, but there can be other consequences. But I agree with you guys. Gating… gating progression on a puzzle that the players might not be able to solve is incredibly frustrating. So make sure you give yourself an out.

Randall 

Unless you have a way to get the characters in. And I think that’s a great time to step into kind of what we call method two, which is really we’re just stepping forward in the spectrum. But yeah, let’s talk about it. I think this is the best structure of puzzle for tabletop, where the player gets to use their wits, their their real world knowledge. And for certain pieces of the puzzle, or for certain hints, they also get to rely on what the characters have and interactions with the world that the characters can perform.

Tyler 

Yeah, so to recap, method two is players with bonuses from their characters. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, great resource on this> Even if you’re playing other RPGs the puzzle section both has advice and a bunch of really, really good examples that you can just rip out and use in whatever game you like.

Randall 

And I do actually, I want to stop for a second here. Like the other thing I will say for those puzzles is they’re infinitely reskinnable.

Tyler 

Absolutely.

Randall 

There’s a lot of portrait puzzles that you could do other things with. Like, you could, you know, it’s not a portrait, it’s a tapestry and it’s rolled up. Great. It’s still the same puzzle, it’s gonna feel completely different. There are puzzles about, like, you know, knights holding swords or tridents and I’ve got these counts of things and you can you know, basically it’s a number of puzzle. Well think of all the different ways that you can introduce the same idea of counts of things to provide your players a puzzle. So look for that for inspiration if you’re trying to put together a good one.

Random 

One other thing if you are looking for an officially published source of a lot of good puzzle ideas, part of the Tales of the Yawning Portal, specifically the level eight adventure White Plume Mountain is a puzzle dungeon it’s literally just a puzzle dungeon that’s meant to be like a like a two, three level part of the you know, the Tales of the Yawning Portal interconnected one shots, and there’s a lot of really cool stuff in there. I ran that for some folks. I’m just gonna say just to leave this for you guys: Super tetanus,

Randall 

Super tetanus.

Random 

Super tetanus.

Randall 

That sounds jaw clenchingly fun.

Tyler 

Method two. This is where this is where most people usually end up after trying method one. If your players get stuck in method one the best, the best way to fix method one is to go to method two. At which point, you as the DM or GM are generally left to improvise hints to give your players based on their stats. Like, my players are stuck, someone roll me an intelligence check. They got to 29. Uh… Space is cold? Method two, if you’re going to go with hints, personally, I recommend when you’re planning the puzzle, come up with some hints ahead of time. Write them down to cater to a few different stats include maybe things that your players might not expect to use, like tool proficiencies. If the puzzle is, I need to put this square peg into a square hole, maybe you say, oh, woodworking tools or masonry tools or something would tell you like oh yeah, this is the shape of like some kind of joint thing that I might do as a woodworker. So maybe come up with two per player that you think that they are likely to use. And that gives you some inspiration to draw from even if you don’t use those specific examples. And coming up with a hint that fits a scale, it’ll take you like five seconds. Should be easy.

Randall 

Yeah, I think that’s a great advice. And I want to emphasize something that you said, having maybe a couple of different skill checks for the same hint catered towards different players. And the reality of it is if you’re sitting behind the DM screen, your players won’t know that the hint that player A just failed at is the hint that player B just got with the alternative skill that you had. So you’ve got a bank of hints that you have available to help them solve the problem. You have twice that number of skill checks that you’re going to allow to get the hints. And I would finally say ideally, not every hint is necessary to solve the puzzle like any one or two of them, hopefully is enough to be able to put it together. You know, if you need… let’s, yeah, maybe we should differentiate. So there’s a hint, which is like, Have you thought about looking at X or you have the impression that the character size is important or something like this. Those are hence the word “sumatra” is critical in solving the puzzle. That’s not a hint, like, that’s a key and you have to get that key, which means somebody has to pass the skill check to get there. So I think having a limited number of of keys and then a larger set of HINTS is the right way to design a puzzle like this.

Random 

I would almost personally entirely stay away from having there be any RNG based gates, like keys, like Randall was talking about, because like I was talking about earlier, if everyone fails, that you have kind of painted yourself into a corner. I am a very big proponent for absolutely have some hints. And, you know, even like Randall was saying, rather than maybe writing out, like, this hint could be this or this skill. If someone makes a good case, absolutely, let it go. And this is something that we’ll we’ll maybe get even into it like as we talk about foam method three for a second.iI someone says, Alright, well, I’m going to hold the gnome Wizard up to look at something at my eye level really clearly. Maybe let them help with that, you know, and call that an athletics skill check. And like, Heck yeah, you parade that gnome Wizard around you, like drag it, drag him along all of the runes on the door, it’s very helpful. Provide something like that. Just reward the players for engaging, even if they even if the characters don’t have traditional ways to engage with puzzles like that,

Randall 

Yeah, just the way that you’ve said that. So if you were a player at the table, trying to solve a puzzle, and failing all of your checks, when the DM says, “What are you good at?” That’s when desperation has set in.

Tyler 

Oof.

Randall 

Yeah, right? There’s something that I want to bring into this as a type of puzzle that I don’t think we’ve said yet. So mazes. Like, a maze as a puzzle can be a lot of fun and I’ll argue it’s definitely a puzzle, the example that I want to give, if anybody’s played any of the earlier Resident Evil games, so like, I’ll say, one, two, and three, certainly. And then things kind of started to go off the rails. And of course, the remakes are fantastic. I strongly recommend them personally. Throwing that out there if you like horror games. If you don’t, I don’t recommend them, you’ll hate them. Essentially, what the games are, are they’re giant maze games, where it’s like, I have to find keys with card suits on them. And I have to use those keys to unlock doors. In order to find the keys. I have to find maybe a locker combination, or I have to find a missing key, like a keyboard key. Like I think what they literally did was look for synonyms of keys and like okay, I’ve got keyboard keys, I’ve got door keys I’ve got… what kind of keys can I find? The structure of it is such that the first time you play through the frustration is you are losing resources as you navigate this world and fight monsters. And your goal is to solve the maze puzzle by finding the keys before you run out of resources. Once you know where the keys are, the replay fun is going through as quickly as possible where anytime you have to find a hint, you no longer need the hint because you just know the information. So the only thing you have to do is physically go to the key locations. And that’s the reason like the first time you play one of these games, it’s a nine hour run through. And the second time you play it, it’s like an hour and 15 minutes. Still a lot of fun. I would say I think this is something we get 100% take into tabletop, where you could have fun where you have like a random encounter table to go with your maze. You let people roam around, but the reality of it is that they have to find the things that lets them get through the next section, and they have to explore. So you’re motivating exploration, you’re having lots of combat and in this case, so we have the encounter builder on RPGBOT, I definitely think you should take a look at it, you almost have to be at a higher level, like start doing something like this, like level five or level six. So you can have a bunch of CR like one monsters to fight through. So you’re more or less just knocking them down. But they’re slowly whittling away at the resources of your players. And in this way, the players are looking at the logic and they’re looking at the map and saying okay, I know we have to do this, and we haven’t explored over here. And that’s as much player as it is character. But you’re relying on the characters to actually get you from point A to point B.

Tyler 

That makes sense is a good example of method two. Yeah, so instead of using the characters to get hints, the strength of the characters buys you time to solve the puzzle that is the maze.

Randall 

100%. Yeah.

Tyler 

One of the biggest problems that you’ll have with both method one and Method two is going to be players struggling to solve the puzzle and like I have read so many stories of DM’s, searching the internet for puzzles for kindergarteners, presenting them for their players, and watching their, their adult, intelligent, experienced, well-educated players struggle to stack rings onto a central column. Sometimes your players are going to get to the game, their brains are fried, and they’re just not going to be able to solve the puzzle. Like, you might give them all the hints in the world like, guys, the big ring goes on the bottom. But you will get to a point sometimes with puzzles where the players just can’t figure it out and the puzzle might just never get solved. That is why I propose method three. Method three is the all character method. Instead of relying on players in whole or in part, method three relies entirely on the capabilities of the characters. Now these are like these are your well-built diverse skills capable, like, I can cast teleport and disintegrate and our Fighter can lift a train. Your heroes. They are here to solve puzzles without some abstract meta humanoid creatures maybe solving things. Method three–

Randall 

Wait, wait. Are we the humanoid creatures, in this case?

Tyler 

Eh…. alegedly.

Randall 

Okay, alright, just checking. Keep going. Keep going.

Tyler 

So method three relies on just the capabilities of the characters. Now you can design your puzzle to cater to the capabilities of characters as much or as little as you want. So you might build a puzzle that like, okay, my party is all barbarians. The highest intelligence of the party is seven. I’m going to give the characters a spelling test. The characters have to struggle through that that spelling test by making a series of intelligence checks or something like that. Conversely, you might say, Okay, you guys need to lift all four of these stone columns at the same time. And the barbarians are like ah, sweet we were built for this. And then they just hoist columns and the door opens, you can very easily cater the puzzle to be as easy or as challenging as you want based solely on the character capabilities. So that gives you a lot of flexibility. It places minimal stress on the players themselves. But I mean, no method is perfect. Obviously, you still have the potential for failure. If rolls are just not going away that day. Maybe the players can’t get through the puzzle for whatever reason.

Randall 

Okay, I want to stop for a second. Tyler, can you differentiate what you’ve just described from a skill challenge?

Tyler 

No. And in a way that’s intentional. You can very easily present a puzzle as a skill challenge. That’s essentially what method three is. So you give your players, like, the… The classic method for running a skill challenge as you need X successes before Y failures and the players can dictate whatever skills they feel are appropriate. The, like, go to numbers five successes before three failures. Like, that is your baseline skill challenge and skill challenges were introduced in D&D Fourth Edition. So I won’t make you go back and buy the player’s handbook for that unless you really want to. But skill challenges have stuck around since fourth edition because they’re a pretty good mechanic for handling complex tasks like this. So you can bring in a variety of skills, the players can dictate skills that they feel might be appropriate to the situation at hand, and the DM doesn’t even necessarily need to prepare an answer for any given skill. Like, if your player says, Okay, we’re we’re looking at the puzzle where I need to fit shaped blocks into appropriately shaped holes. Can I make a strength check to jam this cylinder into the square hole? And the DM might say, “Sure, why not?” And like your player rolls a natural 20 and has 80 strength and just mashes those things in. And you’re like, “okay, the door opens, you have brute forced this puzzle. Congratulations.”

Random 

And by the way, in that case, the character is making direct eye contact with the DM. Not the player. The character is making direct eye contact with the DM’s that happens.

Tyler 

I think I actually did that to someone in a game once.

Random 

Speaking of breaking the fourth wall a little bit, one thing that I did want to touch on before we get too far away from character skills in human puzzles. Be aware that if… particularly your crafty players may try and take it you know, if you ask them for make an arcana check for a hint, they may try and say oh, okay, well, there’s some magic to go on, you’re something like that. There’s a couple ways around this, you can basically just say “tell me what you want to roll.” And then you can try and work with the list of hints you have to figure it out. Or you can just say, you know, specifically if you have written specific hints for specific skills, just say, “roll me a die, I’ll look at your character sheet and I’ll tell you how that went.” Just a thing to consider there. So for skill challenges, right, we’ve talked about this a little bit. And I’ve I’ve talked a little bit about one that I really enjoyed were my party in the long running Strahd campaign, we ended up taking a raft down the river, and we hit some rapids before a waterfall. And this is a thing where, like I talked about the last time we talked about skill challenges in depth plan ahead. In case of both success and failure, and have progression not be gated behind success. Because, you know, when you’re trusting in the dice, you’re going to have situations where people may fail, even, you know, five successes before three failures, that’s, that’s intended to be a slightly better than 50/50 chance for the players. We had people doing all kinds of, like, I was doing the very obvious, like, I made big burly Paladin, I’m going to hang myself off the back of the raft like a rudder and try and steer us. It worked!

Randall 

I’m just thinking though, the failure mode for that is terrible. It’s just you in the water spinning in circles.

Random 

Well, you know, well, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. But then you also had things like our Druid polymorphs into a turtle. And like, goes under and, like, hugs the bottom of the raft to act like a keel. And like, it was amazing. I mean, like everyone had really fun, creative solutions. And I don’t even think he had her roll for that one. It was just like, sure, you expended a wild shape. Success. Great, awesome.

Randall 

Literally, there’s no way this could fail.

Random 

Right? Something like that. Now, with all of that said, we still lost. And we ended up, you know, careening over the waterfall. And all that meant was some of us were stuck on one side of the river. And some of us were stuck on the other side of the river with Brendan Fraser. It was great. That sort of, you know… that sort of engagement in a skill Challenge is a great way to flex parts of the character that maybe don’t come out in combat a lot. And so I honestly really advocate for using this, even like, maybe a thing of method two, a thing of method three, sometime in your arc. This can be so much fun. It hasn’t none of the problems of a classic puzzle, you can’t get your players stuck, you have cases for success and failure. So, you know, if if they do fail, there’s going to be some some consequence, but it’s not like they’re going to say, well, we can’t progress until X.

Randall 

So I want to push back actually a little bit. What you just said is they can’t fail. And the reason they can’t fail is because as a DM you should specifically engineer this skill challenge, this puzzle to have an acceptable failure mode that allows the story to continue.

Random 

Right.

Randall 

And what I’ll say is even for method two, you could design it, such that if there’s a failure on the puzzle, whether it be that there was a timer and the timer ran out and the second door opened, or you know, whatever the case may be, that there has to be an alternative. Because ultimately, in any of these methods, it could be the case that the team of players plus their characters don’t find success.

Random 

I actually want to take a moment to talk about if you listened to one of our very… er, in fact, to our very first News episode, basically, we talked about an experience that we had where we functionally did like, what if an escape room and D&D 3.0 had a baby. They had a really good method for if you failed a room, everyone just, like, expends resource. Like, you all take damage, and then you move on at the same time, that is acceptable and we had found enjoyable failure state. Maybe the puzzle is the room is filling with acid. Once it fills with acid, it then drains away. But if you beat the puzzle, then you get to walk out before it fills with acid and you take a bunch of damage. This is the sort of thing that you can do for built in failure states.

Tyler 

Yeah, failure with a cost is a great way to handle, like, those make-or-break pass/fail situations. If, if the story is blocked by success on a thing, just have the failure consequence be some expenditure of resources. Like, damage is really easy in games like D&D and Pathfinder. In other games, you might use like a monetary cost or something. Like, the party needs to… the party needs to solve some problem. They can’t solve it on their own so they have to pay someone to come and solve it for them. So keeping a failure response in mind for your puzzles is excellent. Random, something you touched on is using something besides skills in puzzles. So spells, class features, things like that. If your players have other options, besides besides just like straight skill rolls that they can apply to the puzzle, you do need to come up with some way of how you’re going to adjudicate that. It’s perfectly fine to say, hey, they expended a consumable resource. So like, this is costing them something. And you can just say, okay, they spent some, they spent their resource, I’m just going to give them their success. That’s totally fine. If they want to spend a spell slot, like, maybe your Wizard says, “I’m stuck on this puzzle. I need a hint. We’re not getting anywhere. I cast Divination and ask some divine being, hey, how do I get through this door?” Yeah, just giving them a success. They spent something expensive to get through it. I’m happy with that instead of a skill check. That brings up another good point that I think is worth asking. How would you handle high passive skill scores? If what you need somebody to make is an intelligence check, or excuse me an investigation or a perception check? And if they have a passive perception of 17…

Random 

I don’t see that as a problem. I mean, if you have optimized your character around that, then congratulations. And again, if we are doing this as a skill challenge, this rotates through the party and initiative order. Even if one person has optimized, if you’re saying I need every person to succeed on a perception check before something. Okay, you know, then then the one person super optimized doesn’t matter,

Randall 

That person ducks when the stick comes and everybody else doesn’t and takes it.

Random 

Exactly. That could be one easy thing. On the other hand, I think that you should reward somebody who has optimized like that. If you have one person who has said yes, I have bumped my passive investigation to 20 because my entire job is finding everything, then let them find stuff. Don’t punish them because they made the opportunity cost choice to do that instead of something else. So throw the puzzle at them, and then maybe let them feel good about their character optimization.

Randall 

That wasn’t a waste of time. Good job. Alright, so I want to ask the question, what are your favorite examples of puzzles in let’s say, either fantasy, tabletop…

Tyler 

So I like to look at Tolkien as kind of the the basis for a lot of how we think of D&D and other dungeon fantasy style games. Original D&D was inspired more by Conan the Barbarian, but the Tolkien influence kind of took over pretty quickly. So there’s a lot of Tolkien in D&D and adjacent games. Tolkien really enjoyed using riddles in his work and other puzzles. The door to the mines of Moria is a really good example of this as a puzzle that the DM thought was really, really simple. And the players got stuck on it forever.

Randall 

Yeah.

Tyler 

Am I allowed to spoil Lord of the Rings? Is the book old enough that we’re okay?

Randall 

I think I feel safe. It feels really safe.

Tyler 

Okay, if anyone doesn’t want Lord of the Rings spoiler, you’re 50 years too late. So the the door says in dwarven, “speak friend and enter.” The door says in Dwarven, speak, friend and Enter. And the intent was just say the word “friend” and the door opens, and they eventually figure that out. But they had to sit around and stare at that door for like, hours in world. I almost said “in game” but Lord of the Rings, it wasn’t a game. So and then wasn’t there like a lake monster that attacked them right as they got through the door? I’m sure the DM was just like you guys are taking forever. Lake monster.

Randall 

Well, actually, it was it wasn’t that movie-only? Like, in the books…

Random 

No, it was there in the books. Although it’s interesting that the movie version is the only depiction that people have started taking as canon. So that like forehead full of eyes and long tentacles. The… basically Peter Jackson came up with that, and it’s just now sort of accepted that that’s what that thing looks like.

Randall 

Okay, that’s fair. Good, good, good. And there was like a twist, right? That they couldn’t just say “friend” because they were all sitting there speak friend and enter. What does it mean? You had to say it in…

Tyler 

Dwarven.

Randall 

Yeah.

Random 

In Elvish.

Randall 

Elvish, okay.

Tyler 

Was it? I thought it was a dwarven door, so they wrote it in dwarven.

Random 

It was the door to Moria facing where the elves came from.

Tyler 

Oh! You know, in all these years, I never picked up on that.

Random 

Yeah, that’s… I mean, their the line from the movie is Gandalf, what’s the English word for friend? And he says “Melon” and then the door opens?

Randall 

Yeah. And then everybody’s just *gasp*.

Tyler 

Well apparently, I would be the players that got stuck at that door for hours.

Random 

Shouting “friend” in dwarven at increasingly loud volumes.

Randall 

But let’s be realistic, right? Like, if that happened at your table, and it totally would if that is the puzzle you brought, they would literally be sitting there. And you would think no, no, we’re not going to go any further. There weren’t any other options. You’ve got to figure this out. And then three hours later, nobody ever comes back again. Right? So it’s, it’s fun. And like when you solve it, it’s great. And if your players got it, like, let’s say, I want to be realistic. If your table figured that out, in more than five minutes, or less than 10 minutes, they would leave thinking we are the smartest people alive. They would feel so happy about it. Like it would be just like, boom, this dopamine beats like… boost. They’d be so happy. But if it takes them more than 30 minutes, you have ruined the game forever. That’s the risk.

Tyler 

That it’s kind of the inherent problem with puzzles, which is why people start to offer method two or method three because you can start introducing hints or just relying on player stats. Like, fifth edition doesn’t have a linguistics skill. Pathfinder first edition does. Pathfinder second edition doesn’t. I think it might… Jeese. Information falling out of my brain. So there’s a linguistic skill in Pathfinder. You take ranks and it gives you more languages. And you could just make a linguistics check be like oh, yeah, this is clearly language puzzle expected for the people who speak this language to just read the stuff on the door, and then the door opens. Like, yeah, so you can easily solve that with method two or method three. But method one could definitely be a huge problem for a puzzle like that.

Randall 

Yeah, and if we’re trying to fix that puzzle in game, like, I feel like what you would almost want is whoever knew elvish to read it, which Okay, first of all, if nobody in your party can read elvish…

Random 

Let me talk about a thing that I’ve been experiencing for the last several weeks. So I’m playing through Out of the Abyss in my my game, and out of the abyss takes place in the Underdark. We’re in a Duergar city. None of us speak dwarven.

Tyler 

Oof.

Random 

Now, fortunately, some of us speak undercommon and so we’re able to communicate, but there’s a lot of the stuff that’s like meant to be like plot train that is just notes written in Dwarven. And we’re like, that’s great. We don’t have a Wizard to read, er, cast comprehend languages. We managed to get around it by I cast tongues, and we had an orc. Which orcish is written in the same alphabet. We had the orc read it phonetically. And my DM said, “sure, tongues will let you understand what he’s saying.”

Tyler 

That’s very clever.

Random 

Thank you. But like, you can get to that level of dumb if you if you are expecting your players to read a language and they just can’t. I will say just I want to plug this any mention I get because you asked what are some favorite puzzles? I have no idea what module I originally took this from. I think it was 3.0 something and it’s a door that is a beholder. Like, it’s like the… it’s like a mural of a bit holder. And then at the end of the eye stocks, there are, like, symbols for things. And basically, you’re supposed to, like, do stuff in the room by figuring out what the beholder means. I’ll try and find it to link it, I actually went and ported that, both from its original instance to a higher level and then from 3.x to 5e so that I could run it in games just because I love that so much.

Tyler 

I love plundering puzzles from old adventures, because the puzzles don’t really need to change that much. You can just… if there are skill checks already written associated with the puzzle, you just adapt them to whatever the new math is, and the new skills are. You can take them across games, you can take them acress settings. It’s super easy to grab a puzzle that of D&D, use it in Star Wars or something. Yes, there are great adventures you can pull things from. We talked about White Plume Mountain. The Tales from the Yawning Portal book is actually a bunch of old adventures ported to fifth edition, including White Plume Mountain, Tomb of Horrors, a couple other great old school adventures that are tons of puzzles, traps, stuff that you just rip right out and drop into your game wherever you want.

Randall 

Which, Tomb of Horrors is famously basically a puzzle dungeon that will kill you. Like, everything is solvable without combat, there’s a way to… I shouldn’t say it that way. But like every room has a method to not die from the trap if you figure out how to not die from the trap, right?

Tyler 

I think there’s three fights in the entire dungeon. And it’s, it’s a dungeon that could get you enough experience to get you through like two or three character levels. Like, it’s a big dungeon. There’s a lot to do. Very little of it is fighting and most of its puzzles and traps.

Randall 

Yeah, so I mean, that’d be pretty cool. It’s a lot of source. I think, historically, people have had a lot of fun. I’ve actually never played it.

Random 

I have also never played it.

Tyler 

So I’ve run it for a bunch of people who thought they were very, very good at D&D, and I proved them wrong.

Randall 

That’s the thing. You proved those players are not good at puzzles.

Tyler 

Well, that’s true. So Tomb of Horrors, famously, was written as a tournament module for experience DnD players who thought they were hot stuff. Like, Gary Gygax sat down and said, “No. I’m gonna show you you are wrong.” And boy, did he. There have been some updates to Tomb of Horrors across editions. Like, every edition has a version of Tomb of Horrors, and it’s actually gotten a lot softer over the editions. So the fifth edition one is way less murdery than… I originally ran in third edition, where it was still plenty murdery, but not as much as first edition.

Randall 

Back in my day…

Tyler 

Back in ye olden days of 2005. But it’s a good adventure. You can learn a lot from reading it. Playing it, your players should go in with a stack of character sheets, because people are gonna die. A lot of people famously TPK in the first room.

Randall 

Nice. Yeah. So this is the place where you want to bring the stack of sheets by which you can, you know, burn and keep yourself warm. Okay, good. So I think this has been a good discussion, we’ve talked about the spectrum all the way from players only knowledge to characters only knowledge and that sweet spot in the middle where we’re leveraging the players and the characters working in tandem. We talked about some cool puzzles in history of fantasy and tabletop. I think… let’s kind of go back with a lens and talk about at a high level across the board, what can go wrong? What are the things that we think a DM should be prepared for? And as a player, maybe how should you think about this, too?

Random 

So one of the things that I really just want to kick off especially because we haven’t touched much on it yet is what is this puzzle going to add? And why is it here? So we’re talking about like the door to Moria. Perfect, yes, that makes sense. You want your friends to be able to get in. You don’t want your non-elf friends to be able to get in. Fabulous.

Randall 

Goblins, orcs, famously not big readers.

Random 

And probably not going to know the Elvish word for friend.

Randall 

Food, more like.

Random 

Right? So or you can take that back to, like, I was talking about the bow. It… maybe this is like a prophecy that was handed down from some divine being. Like, this bow and these arrows are going to save the world if you know how to activate the rainbow. We are not sponsored by Skittles.

Randall 

Not yet.

Tyler 

Taste the rainbow. Optimize the rainbow. Sorry, that was bad. That

Random 

That was my train of thought. No. But I mean so that’s the kind of thing where, like, especially if you’re going to be writing if… sorry, especially if you’re going to be taking the time to write in your own puzzle or to, like, port something in like we talked about. Figure out why it’s there. How it fits in. Don’t just go into it with, like, I expect you to deal with this puzzle in the middle of the forest and they say “great” and they walk around it.

Randall 

One thing I want to say, if you are writing your own puzzle, not inspired, not adapted from anything else, find a friend who doesn’t participate with your regular game, and make them solve it. Please. For everyone. Because it’ll feel obvious to you, you will be looking at this thinking, like, I know a lot about these three things, and everybody knows a lot about these three things, and it’s just gonna work when I put it in front of people. And you’re wrong. You’re absolutely wrong. So at least having one other person who looks at it and be like, that’s, that’s not gonna work. That’s a terrible idea. Or vice versa. Like, they’re like, oh, obviously, you do this, do this, do this, and it’s solved. That’s a good time. Maybe it’s actually going to work at your table.

Tyler 

Yeah, I absolutely agree. I have both played… I’ve been on both ends of those exact puzzles. Ones where I thought the answer was super obvious. ones were the DM thought they were super obvious and they’re just as frustrating for everybody. I can go and ask my wife like, “Hey, can you solve this puzzle? I know you’re not in my weekly D&D game and I would appreciate your thoughts.” And she can look at it and be like, “Oh, yes, clearly, the largest ring goes on the bottom of the tower of rings.” Or maybe she’ll look at it and say, “I don’t understand how these pieces go together. Maybe you should add some hints.” And either way, it’s going to be good feedback. It doesn’t really cost you a whole lot of time or effort to do that. Yeah, just grab any random person.

Randall 

And I think one of the things that you will learn is like, you probably have flawed assumptions of base knowledge.

Tyler 

Absolutely. Yeah. You don’t necessarily know what everyone at the table knows. You don’t know what they’re thinking about at the time. And a lot of people are going to come to your game, maybe after work, maybe after they’ve had a long day and their brains are fried, and something that they might know comfortably on any random day, they just don’t have it in their brain that day. Like, I just got off a 12 hour shift at work. My brain is a fried potato. Can I just roll numbers to stab things, please?

Randall 

You… What do you call them? Click clack math rocks?

Tyler 

Click clack math rocks, man, yeah.

Randall 

Okay, yeah.

Tyler 

i want to roll click clack math rocks and get loot.

Randall 

That’s all I’m here for, really. Another thing, like, we talked about the immersion level of the game. And so, like, the the door at Moria is a great example of it makes sense why that door is there. So something if your table is a table that loves immersion, and like there to be reason. Throwing in, you know, a rainbow puzzle, in the middle of the Lich’s dungeon probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. Unless you do a lot of twisting. Unicorns, yes, liches, no. And so like, what’s the plausibility of the particular puzzle that you’ve introduced being in the place where it is. And not just like, I saw this cool puzzle, I want to throw it in a game. Be thoughtful of that. Vice versa, if it’s everybody just loves to have a lot of fun, and you know these people like puzzles, it probably doesn’t matter that as much to them. They’re probably gonna have a great time. And I think that’s where I feel like, Random, you said this early on. At the end of the session, even if you think it went great. Ask how would went. What did you think of that? Do you want more of that? Do you want less of that? And the answer… the answer might surprise you. You might hear “I love that. I do not want it every game.” And that’s a great, like, that’s good feedback. Now you can structure it like, okay, maybe every fourth session, every fifth session, we do something like this, because they enjoy it at that rate. But just because you like something doesn’t mean you want it every week.

Random 

This is why I really like pulling White Plume Mountain out as your maybe somebody is missing. And you know, we come back to White Plume Mountain when player six isn’t available. And you know, everyone else just comes back and do that. That’s gonna I think that’s going to hit what a lot of players want, which is like, I definitely enjoy some some puzzling… from time to time. I will say that, in my experience, I’ve never run across a whole group that has been super gung ho for like, let’s do all puzzles all the time.

Randall 

I actually just want to do tabletop escape rooms. That’s actually what I’m here for. All right, cool. I think that’s it. I think we did a whole episode. Let’s, uh, let’s go to a question of the week. Alright, so our question of the week this week comes to us from Twitter @baelzar: D&D 6e. should it have more or less crunch than 5e?

Tyler 

That’s an interesting question. So we might, we might answer this as the next evolution of DnD, quote, unquote, which comes out in 2024, which we don’t know yet if it’s going to be like, is it going to be labeled as 5.5 or sixth edition? We’ve been told that it’s supposed to be backwards compatible. So in my head, it’s 5.5. But let’s, let’s try and answer it both ways.

Randall 

I’m gonna go into releases, now. I’m gonna leak it out. It’s going to be D&D Infinite. You’re welcome.

Tyler 

D&D as a service.

Random 

I was about to make that joke and… rats, you beat me to it.

Tyler 

Sorry. So let’s look at 5.5. If it’s going to be backwards compatible, it’s going to be more or less the same as fifth edition. So they can’t make huge changes to the core rules because then it won’t be backwards compatible. Like, if you look at the transition from third edition to 3.5, the core of the game still essentially stayed the same. Like they updated some problematic systems, they rebalanced a bunch of things, they removed some feats that didn’t need to exist, things like that. But the core, like, the resolution mechanics, how skills worked, how spells worked, are all those things stayed the same. So I expect that going from fifth edition to 5.5, it’s pretty much going to be the same thing. Like, they will, they will clean up some of the warts in the system. They’ll rebalance some things like the core classes. They’ll update the core races, like, everything will get a new layer of polish, and it’ll look really nice, and it’ll carry us on for another 5 to 10 years. If we eventually get a sixth edition, which if pasit is precedent, yeah, we obviously will. Someday there will be a sixth edition, which is a reimagining of the rules of D&D. I don’t know if it will be more or less crunch. Honestly, I think it should stay about the same. Like, D&D is, in a lot of ways the center of gravity for the tabletop RPG world. So having it at that kind of mid level of crunch is a really good baseline. And then people can go up or down as their tastes go.

Random 

Yeah, well, one thing that I’m going to say, right? Having watched the progression of how popular D&D has become across 20 years, it is at this moment more accessible than it ever has been and more popular than it ever has been. And I mean, I think the correlation there is very self-explanatory. I think that what they’ve done is they’ve boiled it down to a very simple, very robust system. And I think that, in particular, the way that they’ve done it, where a lot of things are opt-in complexity via variants, like we talked about in whatever episode that was a couple ago, where things like, like 3.x’s carrying capacity system is an add-in variant. Things like, oh…. well, there were a couple others that we talked about in there that were basically like, this is just how it was in 3.x. You don’t have to do that, but you can. I really like what they’ve built there. And I think that, I mean, there’s maybe a few extra things you could strip down. But realistically, I think that this, this sixth edition is probably going to be… I would like it if it was to answer the should question. I think it should be about where it is now, maybe a little bit less, with some more opt-in complexity options. But yeah, honestly, it’s as popular as it is now because they hit it really well.

Randall 

Yeah, so I’ll add two cents to this. When we did the variant rules episode, we talked about the fact that the variant rules aren’t well balanced against each other potentially. In other words, there was nobody seeking to make sure they are well balanced. So I think if you do like what random just said, where you say here’s more opt-in systems where if you want more crunch, you have more crunch. If you don’t want it, the base rules are about what they are. I should say, the complexity level of the base rules are about the same as they are in 5e. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think an improvement you can make in 6e is seeking to balance those opt in rules in multiple sets, where they do work really well together. So that any, you know, any combination of the variants all together comes together really well.

Random 

In fact, I could actually really explicitly see a thing that you did where you say here’s the base set of rules and then here are 15 explicitly well play tested variants. And here are like, our favorite combinations of four. Like, if you put this rule and this rule in this rule together, here is your gritty realism. If you put this rule in this rule and this rule together, here is your uber power fantasy trip. If you put this this together, then you are a 18th century french bard, right? Something like that. You know, but I think that if they could take that opt-in complexity, and even add a little bit of guardrails onto that, I think that that would be sort of what Randall was talking about were like, not just balancing against each other, but actually, here’s some things that we think, as packaged deals, could be a nice addition.

Tyler 

Yeah, and if you want to see an example of how that’s done well, the Pathfinder second edition Gamemastery Guide, which we talked about in the Variant Rules episode has a collection of variant rules for Pathfinder second edition to introduce or alter systems. And they explicitly in the book talk about, like, here’s how you could combine these things. Maybe don’t combine these. If you combine these, you also need this to fix some problems. So this can absolutely be done. And yeah, it would be fantastic to see that in sixth edition D&D.

Randall 

Yeah. So there’s one other piece of this that I want to bring up. A lot of folks already use, let’s say, DnDBeyond manage their character. You know, we’re using tools to manage the game. And so as much as the crunch has been reduced, we’re still bringing electronics in. And if you really understand the rules, like, once you’ve got everything down, you understand your character, it’s pretty easy to use your click clack math rocks, to run everything, until you get to the point where, like, I need 12 of these, and it’s just not tenable and I’m going to Google anyway to roll. Or I’m going to DnDBeyond to rolle. I say that to say, as popular as the game has become, I think if the complexity goes much higher, we might step into this weird world where it’s almost like a pseudo video game that I’m playing in an open structure with friends, where like, the app is driving so much of what I do, and it’s helping me make so many decisions because I don’t want to do the homework to understand it, that it actually feels like I’m playing this hybridization of tabletop and video game. So there’s my fearmongering for, like, adding too much crunch by default.

Tyler 

There’s some validity to that. Fourth edition arguably was built to work with a digital toolset that never got off the ground. But there are games that are way crunchier than D&D That worked just fine. GURPS, HERO, they’re both famously massively massively crunchy systems with a lot of math to be done. And they work just fine. And they’ve been around for like, 30, 40 years.

Randall 

And I’m making like, the, this argument probably isn’t valid, but let’s party for a second. As popular, like, how many people were playing 5e versus how many plate people are playing GURPS?

Tyler 

It’s orders of magnitude different, like, yeah, 5e is way bigger.

Randall 

So if one order of magnitude more players basically have to adopt the tools that we’re describing, to keep playing, I think that could be a significant impact on how people enjoy to the point where, you know, I imagine you know, it becomes this thing of DMs saying, like, oh, you know, it has to be character sheets and dice at my table only and, like, having that kind of thing because they’re so resistant to what might be happening online. I’m, I really am fear mongering, I think if you if, if 6e were to go too far in the crunch, I think either the game might have to regress a bit. Or a large group of players might become very dependent on these tools because the best thing about 5e has been the accessibility to it.

Tyler 

Yeah, I agree totally.

Randall 

Alright, and with that, all hail the Leisure Illuminati.

All 

Hail!

Randall 

Alright, I’m Radnall James. You can find me at AmateurJack.com and @JackAmateur on Twitter and Instagram.

Tyler 

I’m Tyler Kamstra. You’ll find me at RPGBOT.net facebook and twitter at RPGBOTDOTNET and patreon.com/rpgbot.

Random 

And I’m Random Powel, you find me behind a puzzle door because I don’t really participate in social media. Although with that said someone made the high investigation check and did it. Exactly one. So mostly, you’ll find me here on RPGBOT contributing to the podcast of course and articles on the site or in places where people play games I usually there as Hartlequin or Hartlequint.

Randall 

If you enjoyed the show, please rate review us on Apple podcast and rate us on Spotify or your favorite podcast app. It’s a quick, free way to support the podcast and helps us to reach new listeners. You can find links in the show notes. You’ll find the affiliate links for source books and other materials linked in the show notes as well as on RPGBOT.net. Following these links helps us to make the show happen every week. If your question should be the question of the week next week, please email podcast@RPGBOT.net or much message us on Twitter @RPGBOTDOTNET. Please also consider supporting us on Patreon where you’ll find early access to RPGBOT.content, polls for future content, and access to the RPGBOT.Discord. You can find us at www.patreon.com/rpgbot.

Tyler 

Welcome to the RPGBOT.Podcast. I’m Randall James, your puzzled puzzler.

Random 

I don’t think you could record a better sting. That was just perfect.

Randall 

Welcome to the RPG Oh no, I’m kidding.

Leave a Reply