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Monday, June 8, 2015

Dungeon Puzzles

While I work out a table for the training and investment costs series and write up some additional posts on that topic,  I thought I'd take a break and talk about puzzles. This was most spurred by someone asking about non-riddle puzzles for a game aimed at kids. The age wasn't specified, but I'm thinking puzzles in general are better off as non-riddle puzzles, anyways, regardless of age. There's a slight difference in expected difficulty or subject matter from age to age, but I see these as the best puzzle types to use:

- One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
I'm sure most of you remember this from Sesame Street. Just include images or symbols of three or more things, most of which are the same kind of thing, but one of them is different. For example, you enter a room with four exits on the opposite wall. Above each door is a small animal statue: a snake, a turtle, a crocodile, a penguin. Only one door is safe; the other three lead to traps.

A variant of this: Find the Error. Naturally, you don't want to turn this into pixel bitching, but if you have three or four recurring motifs that are exactly the same almost every time you encounter them, any deviation from the motif becomes a clue. For example, let's say the dungeon is filled with statues of a man throwing a harpoon, a woman pouring water from a jug, and an eagle holding a fish in its talons, and the GM describes these the same way every time they are encountered, but in one room you see a man throwing a harpoon, a woman pouring a jug, and an eagle holding a rabbit, something's different.

- Analogies or Relationships

An analogy, in this case, means the well-known form "A is to B as C is to D", such as "a sword is to a warrior as a wand is to a wizard". A relationship means an implied analogy, such as the sword/warrior relationship implying an analogy of tool to profession.

This works well for the cliche "complete the statue" puzzle. You have a statue of a warrior in full armor with a hand gripped as if it could hold something. In the dungeon, you find several brass objects: a flower, a long-handled spoon, a spear. Which do you put in the warrior's hand? For a full analogy, you would have at least one complete statue indicating a relationship, such as a wolf eating a deer and a gryphon eating a horse. Then you have a pedestal next to these statues with an eagle in a position as if it is tearing into its prey. Your job is to find the object representing its prey and place it on the pedestal.

A trickier version is a room with three sealed doors and a bas-relief above each door, each depicting a different relationship, say a deer with a fawn, a wolf tearing into a cow, and a man riding a horse. In the center of the room is a statue of a gryphon. Placing a ceramic egg at its base opens one door, placing a ceramic horse opens another. There may or may not be a way to open the third door.

- Memory Games

On various murals throughout the dungeon, you have a series of symbols, always in the same order. For example, triangle, wavy line, crossed circle. Then you get to a room with five  bas-relief symbols that are obviously buttons. The symbols are crossed circle, cross without circle, square, triangle, wavy line. Pressing the right buttons in the right order triggers something, such as a secret door.

Another example are the puzzles in Skyrim. They have a few standard symbols based on animals or creatures, and some rotating pillars or rings with three symbols on each. Somewhere nearby, there is a set of fixed pillars showing the proper order, or there are symbols on a "dragon claw" used as a key. This is actually easier than the puzzle described above, because the solution is never very far away, unless you find a door that requires a dragon  claw that you don't have.

What I'd suggest is that riddles, if they are used at all, are best restricted to clues for any of the puzzles above. They are an extra help on what to do.


  1. This is a well thought out way to apply this kind of puzzle to dungeon design.

  2. This is a well thought out way to apply this kind of puzzle to dungeon design.

  3. Great post. It's useful to have summaries like this for brainstorming.

    Similar to the "complete the statue" is the "find an item and bring it to the right place" and perhaps "use it in the right way" puzzle, like in so many interactive fiction games (Adventure, Zork etc). For example, two parts of a 'weird tool' must be found and put together in the right way and then used to a turn a wheel on a giant contraption in order to raise a magic barrier.

  4. Your post was linked up today on another blog I follow; a bit fortunate in timing as I wrote something late last night related to this subject:

    To summarize, I've not made much use out of these kinds of "Challenge the Player" type puzzles. I have used them in the past, and I understand many do still today, but I always felt like I was removing a degree of agency. I expand on it a little bit (at least, what my 2330 brain can conjure) in the post above. Basically, these kinds of things introduce a sort of disconnect between the player and their character I don't think is a "good" GM quality. Yet, anyways.