Tuesday, 10 September 2013

RPG Puzzles: A Post Mortem, Part 1

RPG Puzzles: A Post Mortem, Part 1

In my weekly Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition campaign, my players recently stumbled into a secret underground, Chaos-infused, giant magical lair. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds.

This lair had at its front a giant door with four keyholes, and the party had it explained to them that they needed to solve four separate puzzles to open each lock and progress.

When planning for this session, I wanted to make 4 separate and unique puzzles, each that will reward the players in a different way. Whilst we haven't finished all four of them yet, the players did complete the first two last night, and so I am going to break them down, go into what worked and what didn't work, and then analyse the results.

Puzzle #1: The Hall of Paintings

The Hall of Paintings was the first puzzle my players encountered. It consisted of a small room with 5 hooks on the walls, 5 empty and unique picture frames, and 5 unframed pictures. The players were given 8 clues between them, and 'control' over the clues they were given (I.e. they held the clue note, and chose where it went and how it applied).

The puzzle was essentially a logic puzzle, except that I printed out and created the frames and paintings for the players to actually hold and assemble as they saw fit. In retrospect, I think this is what sold the puzzle to them. Further, the clues were essentially riddles - short and to the point, which hinted at one aspect of each painting and each frame. The players had to determine if the clues referred to the placement order, or the framing, or what.

In my experience, puzzles such as this without the visual components, often become a situation of everyone sitting back bored whilst the one or two smartest puzzlers in the room figure it out on a sheet of paper. However, with the visual aids, everyone could see what was happening, and everyone could move the components around.

When I introduced a penalty for placing the wrong painting in the wrong frame, tensions rose and everyone around the table took it in turns to place one painting. You could have cut the suspense with a knife.

It was perfect!


Logic puzzles and riddles can work great, despite their general dislike in the RPG community, so long as the GM provides a visual aid for the players. Always have something that everyone can look at and get their hands on. Just like combat needs a battle map and miniatures, puzzles need puzzle pieces.

Feel free to download and try out the Puzzle for yourself! (Note, GMs only. If you want your GM to run this puzzle for you, ask your GM to download it, as it contains the solution and spoilers.)

Puzzle #2: The Hall of the Hydra

The Hall of the Hydra was the second puzzle encountered in the crazy lair/laboratory. This puzzle consisted of a Hydra with four different heads (one for each Lesser Daemon of each Chaos God, so there was a Bloodletter head, a Plaguebearer head, a Daemonette head and a Horror head), as well as a pattern sequence surrounding the Hydra, which had the four icons of the Chaos Gods in the following order:

Slaanesh, Nurgle, Khorne, Tzeentch.

The Hydra would attack the closest player to each head each round with their special abilities, until such a time as the players figured out the puzzle. I wont give away the puzzle here, for I intend to upload it so that other GMs can run it for their players, so...


The trick lies in the sequence with which the players kill the Hydra heads. If they kill a head out of order, it regrows and sprouts a twin. Thus, the players need to systematically kill each head in correct order, otherwise they will be knee deep in Hydra heads.

Every GM out there should be shaking their heads at how moronically simple this puzzle is, and how obvious it would be for the players, but it was surprisingly effective. The players enjoyed the ability to overcome the puzzle and figure it out. They took great pride in not spawning a single extra head throughout the entire battle, and I rightly congratulated them at the end for their cunning.


Simple, combat-based puzzles can work really well if they are based on a clever trick which doesn't take a genius to over come, but if failed, can really hamper the players. My players enjoyed this puzzle because it gave them a chance to all shine in combat whilst tactically defeating an enemy in a way they had never had to before (one after the other, instead of a mass murder-fest).

Never underestimate the power of praise and the joy people feel from understanding the rules and using them to success. It is the same reason board games and strategy games are so fun, so why wouldn't it apply to tabletop RPGs as well?

Final Conclusion of Part 1

Puzzles tend to get a lot of flak in the RPG community, but, so long as they are used sparingly, and not the focus of every session, they can be a great set piece that the players will enjoy greatly and remember for a long time to come.

Just remember, though, that your puzzles can't be static - there has to be some limiter (wrong moves = penalties/a time limit/something trying to eat you, etc) otherwise it becomes boring, and you end up with one engaged player and the rest sitting bored and left out.

I hope you enjoy the puzzles, and I hope you make some of your own. If you do either, let me know how they go!