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A Puzzling Affair: How I Learned to Love Puzzle Design

I’m pretty notorious about playing puzzles in adventures - I don’t like them, and any chance I can wish or divine intervention my way out of one, I will. If not, that’s my chance to get a round of drinks for the table. So if I have all this puzzle hate, why did I start including puzzles in my adventures? It comes down to our general design philosophy: the players will always win, but what is it going to cost them? Add on that puzzles allow us to do things better than we could in other ways, and you’ve got more of them popping up in our D&D games. Here are a few reasons you should include an enigma in your next D&D game.

Puzzles Provide Exposition in a Different Way

I loved my box text as much as the next writer as a way to ensure that certain vital information gets across to the players in a scene. Getting rid of it made me rethink how we design encounters and what the best ways are to get information to players. In some cases, it meant following the rubric and putting essential info in the right sections. In others, it meant making a handout - putting the narrative onus on the players to share information (Paige’s philosophy is also that handouts double as props to enhance the game). But the real fun comes when the party can interact with the exposition via a puzzle. Through interaction, the characters and players come to understand how someone thinks, the security they put into things, or exciting parts of a given group or society.

Puzzles Break up the Routine

I get it; many players come to the game table to roll dice and feel heroic. I also understand that if we rely on dice for everything, a game session turns into a slog where rolls lose relevance and importance. Adding a puzzle shifts the table’s momentum and challenges the adventurers (and players!) in different ways. Breaking up routine is vital in extended adventures, such as ones with optional objectives and long combats. Consider 9-17 In the Hand, where bonus objectives utilize puzzles (one a maze and the other a series of tripwires) require non-tactical analysis to reach objectives.

Puzzles Enrich Encounters

Puzzles as stand-alone encounters are appealing as a way to offer story beats and mix things up, but puzzles are also an excellent way to spice up other encounters. A well-placed conundrum gives players more options past “I swing my sword at it.” When designing these as additions, make sure to consider the incentives. Puzzles and traps that don’t have a strong enough impact tend to be ignored and dealt with afterward, or not at all. One of my favorite adventures, Eric Menge’s DDAL07-14 Fathomless Pits of Ill Intent, uses puzzles and riddles to enrich combat and exploration encounters in meaningful ways that demand players’ attention in order to succeed.

Puzzles are Rewarding

At the end of any combat, player characters immediately start asking what they got out of it. For new players, it’s directly asking for experience and gold (numerical values of accomplishment), while others look for a new magic item to add to their utility belt. Puzzles, on the other hand, hold intrinsic value for those who solve them - a sense of accomplishment borne out of cleverness. It’s a good feeling that doesn’t need a numerical value attached (but including one never hurts).

Does recognizing all of these things make me look forward to playing out puzzles at the table more? Some, but there are more steps to making puzzles approachable and enjoyable for everyone at the party, and we’ll explore those in another blog article.

Next time you’re designing an adventure either for your home group or a published adventure, include a puzzle or two! Have a favorite puzzle you’ve experienced in a tabletop game? Let us know about it in the comments.

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