My Struggle with Puzzles in Tabletops

Man, Tuesdays are so common, aren’t they? It’s like we have one every week or something. It’s Tabletop Tuesday yet again, and the subject this week is something that fills me with unease – puzzles.

If you play video games OR tabletop games, then you know about puzzles. They’re a staple of any dungeon-crawling adventure. When Link enters a dungeon, you know he’s gonna have to push some statues around, shoot some eyeball switches, and use a conveniently-placed dungeon item to great effect. And you know that when a fighter, a thief, a wizard, and a cleric walk into a dungeon, there’s going to be a riddle to solve or a surprisingly-futuristic trap mechanism for them to disable together. That’s just how the genre works.

Here’s the thing. I am terrible at thinking of puzzles. Just gosh-awful at it. So when the time comes for me as a GM to say “alright, my players just spent an entire session doing nothing but fighting – it’s time for a puzzle,” I balk. I freak out. And then I try some crazy gimmick to create puzzles that my players won’t totally hate. That’s not to say that my players have ever really complained about the puzzle portions of our RPGs – they usually like them. But it stresses me out trying to make ones that don’t suck, and my heaviest prep-work goes into sessions where puzzles will be frequent.

The first time I ever created puzzles for a tabletop setting, they turned out kind of like an activity book for a six year old. I took little scraps of paper and wrote out word puzzles or created small visual puzzles that the players had to figure out. Each puzzle represented the trap mechanism of a specific room in a mansion, and they had to deactivate the traps to travel through the building safely. However, there was a twist – the boss of the mansion was too powerful for the party, and the only way to slow her down and make her a reasonable opponent was to reverse the puzzles and reactivate the traps so she would get blasted. So each puzzle card had a reverse side that twisted the puzzle a bit, requiring the players to undo the work they just did or look at it in a different way. This was well-received except for one thing – I had assigned the puzzles randomly, and many players felt it would have been better if they could choose which puzzle they tackled.

The next time I did puzzles, I tried to pull some tricks from The Legend of Zelda and create puzzles specifically built to interact with certain items. These were items the characters collected during the session, which they learned how to use thanks to the puzzles, preparing them to use them during a boss battle later. The biggest problem with these puzzles? They were way too easy – the players had just gotten the items, so it was clear that they were required for the puzzles and it didn’t require any thought or even any dice rolls. Ten minutes of roleplay and BANG, the puzzles were over and with none of the head-scratching or “aha!” moments that make puzzles satisfying.

I think where I failed was in introducing the puzzles AFTER introducing the items needed for them. In Zelda or Metroid, you go to an area and see all these places you can’t get to or enemies that are really hard to defeat. They’re puzzling because they are unknown factors, and then once you find the thing that makes all those puzzles possible, you experience the “aha!” moment and can enjoy learning how to use the new thing to get through them.

My next approach was the Golden Sun approach. If you never got the joy of playing Golden Sun, here’s a little about it: the characters have powers associated with one of the four elements. These magical abilities known as psynergy don’t just work in battle – they work in the overworld for puzzle solving. So you’re always using this energy and putting it to the test in new ways. Powers aren’t just destructive, they also have practical applications that make life out in the world easier. Climbing puzzles, statue moving puzzles, floor tile puzzles, all these things are made easier by the magical power available to you.

I decided to take that angle and design puzzles built specifically around the character’s powers, forcing them to use them in non-combat ways. This was probably my least successful approach to puzzles, because once again, the characters were specifically equipped with the solutions to deal with them. They weren’t puzzling at all.

Here’s what I think my problem is: I put too much pressure on it. When I set out to make a puzzle, I’m thinking too mechanically instead of narratively. I’m like “this is a dungeon, and a dungeon needs puzzles, and I need to think of these crazy logic-teasers or word scrambles or whatever.” But take a look at the puzzles in Zelda, or in Golden Sun. Yes, technically someone out there had to create these puzzles to be solved in a very specific way. But in the fiction, the characters are just using whatever resources they have to move forward. When there’s a locked door in front of Link that only opens when someone is standing on it, he’s not like “oh, some game developer put this puzzle in here. Time to go into puzzle-solving mode.” The door lock operates on a pressure plate, and when Link realizes he can’t stand on a plate and walk through a door at the same time, he grabs the nearest statue and pushes it on there. Or the switch that operates a bridge is frozen over, so he thinks “well, the quickest way to thaw that out is with a bit of fire.” There happens to be a sconce with a burning flame and he’s got a bow and arrows, so that’s how he gets around the problem. Puzzles work best when they are organic. They are puzzling, but they are not “puzzles.” This gives players the opportunity to explore solutions without an obvious solution sitting right in the palm of their hand. That’s what leads to the “aha!” moment; when the player figures out how to work around an obstacle standing in his or her way.

If you too struggle with puzzles, I encourage you to join me in thinking of puzzles as a more organic experience. And for those of you who are excellent puzzle-makers, feel free to leave some advice in the comments. I know I certainly could use it!

2 thoughts on “My Struggle with Puzzles in Tabletops

Add yours

  1. Oh man, puzzles.

    The toughest part is balancing your vision of the puzzle against how a player will view it as presented. Because you know the solution, the clues that you leave are obvious pointers to the answer – but if not presented in the right way, or if the hints have to be interpreted in a super-specific way, it’s going to up the difficulty.

    I think the best puzzles are the ones that allow you to tinker through to a solution – where you can see results of your actions, even if those results aren’t the actual solution. Your example is the switch that opens the door – they figure out what the elements do, then figure out how to configure the elements in the most useful way.

    One puzzle I’ve reused (with different players, mind you) is as follows: PCs find a number scrawled on a floor or a wall somewhere in the dungeon. Elsewhere, they find a series of switches (eight or more). Elsewhere (or the same room) they find a series of lights that correspond to the switches. The switches correspond to the binary number of lights that turn on – so 00000101 would be five lights – and when they turn on the correct number (the one they find elsewhere in the dungeon) a door opens up.

    The number is sufficiently complicated that they can’t just try every combination in order to get it. But when they flip each switch, they can see how the number of lights change, and ultimately figure out that it’s powers of two going up from the right-hand side.

    It’s not incredibly complicated (and even less so if you have a CompSci major/programmer in your group) but it’s enough to break up the explore/kill/loot pattern that is so easy to fall into. And for me, that tends to be the best type of puzzles for most players – difficult enough to make them go “hmm”, but not so difficult that they have Myst/Riven flashbacks.

    Now, if you do have players who are puzzle fanatics, I have no recommendations 😛 Difficult puzzle designers (again, Myst/Riven/Zork) are on a whole different level.


    1. That’s definitely a good one. I like the idea of the puzzle components being in different rooms – that’s not a technique that I use very often but I think it can be pretty effective. I agree with you though – there’s a point where puzzles become frustrating rather than a refreshing break from the formula, and that’s a line I definitely don’t want to cross as the GM.


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