Epic Ideas: Clever Fast Puzzles

So, there you are one night. You are working on the latest dungeon, crypt, castle, etc… Then you find yourself perplexed, puzzled, pondering. You want a puzzle for your adventure, perhaps more than one. Yet, you’re stuck on what you want to put in and how to solve it. I want to present you with a fast way to prepare puzzles for your adventures. In fact, it should be fast enough that you can put them in your adventure while  you’re game mastering. I present to you, Clever Fast Puzzles!

First and foremost, we need to go over just a few things that make a great puzzle.

  • It needs to be well placed.
  • It needs to have good reason to exist.
  • It needs to have a fun solution.

So now that we know that, let’s look at where you want your puzzle. Is it in a place that should have a puzzle? What makes a good place?

  • Close to their goal but not so close that they will go for the goal instead. Typically about 3/4ths the way through the adventure.
  • Somewhere where it can distract the players from their goal.
  • Early in the adventure to throw the players off track.

There are other good spots, but if you can answer yes to any of those three points, you have good enough placement. Now, why is it there? Just like any good villain, a good puzzle has to have a good ‘motive’ or reason to be there. Doing it just because you want one isn’t a good idea. It can feel displaced and disjoint the players from the adventure.

Putting a puzzle in a cave system that orcs have decided to hole up in, doesn’t really make sense. Traps are fine for that, but puzzles are not traps; at least… not completely. Now, if the orcs took over some old ruins, it could make sense, especially if you had some orc corpses around the puzzle showing that they failed. What make good reasons?

  • It should fit into the adventure’s location.
  • It should suit the theme of the locals (monsters/enemies).
  • It was placed by the enemy(s). (Borderline trap is perfectly okay.)

If you can answer yes to two of the above bullet points, then your reasoning to exist is fine. If you can answer yes to one of them, and one more of your own reasons, it is also great! Otherwise, you may want to rethink it. The next step is the tricky part, creating a fun solution.

The difference between a puzzle and a trap should be significant. Traps revolve more around disabling a trigger mechanism, typically use only skill checks, and can go off at any time. Puzzles revolve around critical thinking and mean to deter players, even if that means sometimes killing them with a trap built into it. The idea of a puzzle means it has a solution. The idea of a trap means it should cause harm. A puzzle has a solution because someone or something is supposed to get through it. A trap is there to stop whatever is trying to get through. Keep this in mind when creating a solution.

Some things to note about puzzle solutions:

  • It is meant to be solved. Unlike traps, the creator doesn’t need a key or way to disable it. They just do the solution to get by.
  • It should reward clever thinking. I often have one end solution in mind, but multiple ways to reach that solution.
  • The solution to the puzzle should involve a reward. If it doesn’t, then you’ve made an elaborate trap, I’ll get into those at a later date.

It’s important that you remember all three of these points when creating a solution.

Now, how do we actually create the puzzle? Start with the end. What is the puzzle hiding, what is the solution? I’m going to make a puzzle along side of you.

Solution – Unscramble words written in elven text. It reads “Seventh a sorts remade.” It is actually an anagram for “Death serves no master.” There are also seven hidden clues that can be assembled correctly to solve the puzzle. Speaking “Death serves no master.” in elven automatically solves the puzzle. (I used Wordsmith.org to create the anagram.)
Reward – A way to surprise the enemy by showing up where they weren’t expected, perhaps a ‘backdoor’.

Before we move on to reason, and location, we need to check this against the good solution list. It is meant to be solved. The creator/cultist has the solution to easily bypass it by just speaking the words they won’t have to find the clues. The puzzle rewards the players by giving them advantage against finding the cultist.

Now, why is it here? The cultist needs a way to get in and out of this place quickly, without being seen. He is an elf, so creating an elven puzzle is perfectly fine. It distracts the players if they aren’t able to solve the puzzle quickly. If he finds out they are in the area, he can react accordingly. Perhaps using it to bide time to escape elsewhere. The clues are going to be placed making a seven pointed star, the symbol of his cult. So there are reasons a plenty for it to be here.

Where is here? Early in the adventure. This just falls into place, he needs a way in and out fast. It distracts the players early on. They may end up spending too much time on the puzzle. Now, to finalize it.

Solution: Recite “Death serves no master.” Or put the clues together to solve the puzzle. They are broken up in elven along a seven pointed star each pointed with a small waist high pillar. On the pillars it reads (In the order the players look at them).

On the floor is “Seventh a sorts remade.” Which is the clue that this seven sorts of elven text has been re-arranged or remade. They need to fix that or remake it to solve the puzzle. All of it is a reminder should something happen to the cultist and he forgets how to get in quickly. All written in elven. When read in the correct order it reads dea-ths-er-ve-sno-ma-ster. So requirements will be someone reading and speaking elven, clever thinking, and perhaps marking the words down to solve the puzzle.

Reward: Flank or surprise the bad guy.
Location: Early in adventure, within the first few locations.

The greatest thing about this puzzle is that in no way is it required to continue the adventure. They can give up and move on, and the puzzle did its job. But, with enough clever thinking, perhaps the players can solve it and find a good shortcut through the adventure.

Don’t be afraid to let their skill checks help them either! Just don’t require skill checks. Knowledge checks may reveal that the cult uses the seven pointed star, perhaps it is some sort of anagram. Detecting magic may reveal that something is in place some sort of portal spell.

Hopefully, you can use this Epic Idea to come up with puzzles in no time at all! Just keep in mind, solution and reward, reason and location.

Till next time!


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