Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. This week we discuss puzzles in D&D. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here. In case you missed it the Pledge Manager is open and you can claim your Kickstarter rewards if you backed Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition. Or you can pledge late if you missed it the first time around. Get the info here.
Delving Dave’s Dungeon
Here are two puzzles I came up with a while ago for a couple of my D&D games.
Dancing Angels in the Dark
A room is full of magical darkness with a pool of water in the center of the room. There is an angel statue in each corner of the room. The angels each have one hand raised up towards the sky, palm up and hand open. Each one has a sword pointed towards the pool. If the pool is disturbed the four angels rush forward stabbing the offender.
Solving the puzzle. Placing a flame in each upraised hand lights it like a torch. Once all four are lit the darkness is banished and the angels are deactivated.
Reward. Drinking from the pool after the angels have their hands lit grants the benefits of a long rest
Mechanics. Base the attack bonus and damage off of the level of the party. The damage by level table from the fifth edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is a good starting point for a guide.
Pagoda of the Five Elements
There is a pagoda. It has five tiers and each represents a different element — Air, Wood, Fire, Water and Earth. Each tier has a little bowl on it. The correct element needs to be placed in the correct bowl in the correct order. When the wrong order is used or the incorrect element placed in the wrong bowl it would summon a creature of that elemental type.
I placed the pagoda in the adventure earlier. If they didn’t remember, I allowed an Intelligence check to remember the elements and the order. This one was part of a trial and tied to a particular culture. It could be easily reflavored for something else. The elementals summoned can be adjusted to whatever level that is appropriate to your adventuring party.
From Ted’s Head
Creating puzzles can be difficult but it all depends on how you are defining what a puzzle is. If you look at the definition it says a game, toy or problem designed to test ingenuity or knowledge. Going in that direction, I feel puzzles are used more often than most Dungeon Masters think. So doing a skill challenge or combat that cannot be solved by just reducing enemy hit points to zero falls under this category.
But for those who wish to argue or are looking for the classic idea of a puzzle I am going to do several things. First, allow me to give some advice. Despite what you have prepared or found for an established puzzle if your players have come up with a clever “solution” to your puzzle allow it to work or even work partially allowing them to move forward. Alternate solutions are an important concept for DMs to accept as it helps with your ability to adapt on the fly, but it has to make sense given all the information, including what the characters do not know.
If you are looking for resources to add some puzzles to your game I found two quick and useful resources:
But this might not be new to you so I will go one step farther. I created a fun, though simple puzzle for my game this past weekend. Below are my notes on the puzzle:
This room is 45 feet deep and 55 feet wide. Inside are pedestals, 10 in total. The floor is heavily scratched showing the stone pedestals have been moved many times in many directions. Atop each pedestal is the head or bust of a different dragon. There are ten common types of dragons represented here. The pedestals are arranged with four along the wall with the door you entered and four along the opposite wall. One each are to the left and right. All statutes face into the room. They will be placed in a random pattern and when someone steps into the middle of the room the door shuts and locks behind the characters.
The statues need to be moved so face their opposite in element. The doors will open when all the statues are across from their opposite. It does not matter the exact positioning but if a statue is moved into place and it is not facing its partner it will issue a blast of its element causing 2d6 damage of the appropriate type. Whoever is within range of a 15 cone can make a DC 15 Constitution or Dexterity save to take half damage. Constitution is for cold, sleep and poison. Dexterity is for fire, lightning or acid. The matching sides are as follows:
- Red must be across from Gold — Both do fire damage
- White must be across from Silver — Both do cold damage
- Black must be across from Copper — Both do acid damage
- Blue must be across from Bronze — Both do lightning damage
- Green must be across Brass — This is the trick as green does poison brass does asleep
I created the physical objects so I could track movement in the room for fun. You can modify this puzzle so it only attacks the creature touching the statue causing less overall damage. You could make it harder requiring Strength checks to move the statues. Even the outcome could be changed. Instead of being across from its opposites maybe the statues are in two lines and they need to be arranged in order of draconic hierarchy. Maybe the statues only need to be moved and faced away from the center. The options are only limited by your imagination. If you use this one please feel free to share what your win condition is. If you do as I did and make the dragon bust statues please share on social media and make sure you tag us #nerdarchy
From the Nerditor’s Desk
If I’m honest, puzzles aren’t my strong suit as a Dungeon Master. I rarely use them in games and if I do it’s because I thought including one in a game session might be fun and I searched online to find one that sounded cool. But Nerdarchist Ted provided an easy alternative for me to discuss puzzles in 5E D&D during our weekly live chat. He mentioned how skill challenges could be considered a puzzle, and this is all I needed to hear.
I love skill challenges!
There’s one in our free Arbor Jade adventure in Nerdarchy the Store, we’ve written several posts and shot a few videos on the topic, and just about every adventure or encounter I write includes some form of skill challenge. Recently I played in a one-shot game with folks I met online and the DM ran a skill challenge to escape Death House. Most of the other players weren’t familiar with the concept but everyone had a blast.
A skill challenge is sort of like a puzzle because it’s a problem testing a character’s ingenuity or knowledge. I prefer these kinds of puzzles specifically because they test the character, not the player. Puzzles often present challenging scenarios for players to figure out, making them sort of meta in practice. But skill challenges offer a nice middle ground. A skill challenge begins with a specific goal. Here’s a few examples:
Chase and catch a creature
Escape a malevolent haunted house
Aid in a magical ritual
The DM determines in advance how many successes the party needs to accumulate and how many failures before the challenge ends. Traditionally, the threshold for failure is three failed skill checks. There can be any number of required successes depending on the difficulty of the challenge.
Planning a skill challenge includes considering some of the skills involved. For a chase this could be Athletics, Acrobatics and Perception. Characters will run, jump, climb and leap rooftops in pursuit of their quarry. The party needs five successes to catch up to their target.
It’s a good idea to consider the results of the skill challenge. In the case of a magical ritual, what happens if the party fails? What happens if they succeed? Is there any scale for how many successes and failures they accumulate?
Each character may only make one skill check for any particular skill. Other characters can make skill checks for the same skill though. For added difficulty, you characters can only make skill checks for skills they have proficiency in. In addition to the skills you include for the skill challenge, players can explain how they would use any other skill in the challenge, and if you determine it makes sense allow them to contribute a skill check. For example, a player says they’ll use their character’s Insight to anticipate the target’s next move and try to cut them off. Or they could use Animal Handling to try and get the stubborn ox in the road to move out of the way — or into the path of the target.
The most important thing I’ve learned after running and participating in skill challenges is for the DM to be very clear with the players. Explain that the scenario is a skill challenge, what this means and the parameters for success. Be very explicit — characters will use their skills to overcome this challenge. (I’ve had players want to cast spells and make weapon attacks after failing to explain the intention clearly.)
Skill challenges are a terrific puzzle because they allow players to approach a situation creatively, but use their character’s game mechanics to interface with the scenario. If done right, players really have a lot of fun and appreciate the opportunity to utilize their skills, especially the less used ones they’re proficient in.
Until next time, stay nerdy
— Nerdarchy Team
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