Push Your 5E D&D Skills to the Limit with Puzzles from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted ruminate on all the myriad ways for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons players to increase their characters’ chances to succeed on one of the three main kinds of d20 rolls forming the core of the rules of the game. In addition to attack rolls and saving throws the other kind of roll players make are ability checks and sometimes these are further modified with a proficiency bonus to reflect a character’s particular skill. There’s a lot wrapped up in these circumstances. Not long ago I looked at when, how and what particular skills get checked during a 5E D&D game. Today I’m excited about all the ways to challenge these skills through a variety of puzzles found in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. So let’s get into it.
Connecting high skill bonuses with challenging puzzles
Chapter 4 in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything keeps the hits coming as I continue digesting the modular chunks of Dungeon Master’s Tools. In the video Dave and Ted consider a bunch of ways for 5E D&D characters to bump up their bonuses when making skill checks and the Puzzles section in the newest book makes a terrific opportunity to give some context. Encountering a challenging puzzle during an adventure creates a change in pace and space for players to exercise their creativity.
Nuance permeates Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything in the same way as its predecessor books. The material earnestly supports the “rulings over rules” mantra and I know, you hear it all the time but you want MOAR RULES. But hear me out. No amount of rules even if followed seamlessly in every situation makes a formula to solve for the perfect game of 5E D&D or any other RPG. My takeaway from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything altogether matches others from the PHB and straight on down the line. All the fluff — that’s part of the “rules” too.
Puzzles are no different! In fact a quote from Tasha to introduce the section makes a solid point and if you read no further you’d have a springboard for your next game already.
“Why create a solvable puzzle? Just pose an enigmatic question without an answer and watch your trespassers squirm! — Tasha”
Like all the best parts about an RPG the book presents puzzles as a flexible and easy to customize group activity for all sorts of characters. The design team succinctly presents evocative language to get you thinking about puzzles in your game. A lot of 5E D&D content does this, which I believe is intentional because it gets you thinking practically. A series of rolls won’t tell you when to incorporate puzzles into your game. But maybe you want to explain why no one has ever discovered something hidden close at hand before. Yeah! Every Dungeon Master paints themselves into a corner one way or another. This makes sense. It’s relatable and happens to be one of the situations the book offers puzzles as a solution for.
In a roundabout way we find a connection to skills as another potential reason to deploy puzzles — to provide an opportunity for characters to use their skills in uncommon ways. This is not an uncommon hurdle for lots of players, one I see, hear and read probably every day at least once. Points like these included in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and more broadly in all the other books might be something many players take for granted. Some criticisms of the book I’ve encountered echo the sentiment of knowing a lot of this stuff through past experience and exposure to more media about the game. To this point I have to respond, well, no duh.
I like to imagine the paradigm of 5E D&D play is undergoing a complete flip. Most of the DMs I know seem primarily interested in the new subclasses in the book. But a lot of players I know curiously peruse the back half of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Players who bought the book and keep on flipping past the less than halfway mark can find a lot of plain speaking motivation to maybe give this DM stuff a try. The book’s disclaimer warns of an incantation hidden in the pages. Could it be a spell encouraging more players to become DMs?
Puzzles make a wonderful place to start for a new DM or an experienced one for that matter. I didn’t need to read beyond the first example Creature Paintings to recognize the elegant simplicity of puzzles. They’re building materials for a DM to provide characters. They’ll work together using their features and abilities to construct a story. It won’t look the same as everyone else’s story but generally it’ll look like something, and that’s remarkable.
Each of the 13 example puzzles in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything are very different but incorporate shared elements to provide structure. These include difficulty, special features and how to interact with them, a solution, suggested hints and guidance for customizing a puzzle to better serve your group. I developed a powerful connection to the puzzles section of the book mostly because I perceive a connection between the way they’re presented and our own bestselling Out of the Box: Encounters for Fifth Edition material.
Connecting puzzles with skill checks
If you’ve read this far you’re probably wondering how puzzles relate to achieving outrageously high skill bonuses. I apologize for the roundabout way of getting here but I’ve got a lot to share on how I feel about Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and puzzles cleaves to a robust portion of those thoughts.
“A skill represents a specific aspect of an ability score, and an individual’s proficiency in a skill demonstrates a focus on that aspect.” — from the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook chapter 7: Using Ability Scores — Skills
Puzzles primarily fall under the exploration pillar of 5E D&D play. Along with serving as a tool to progress a story in an interesting and meaningful way a puzzle also offers excellent chances for characters to show off their focus in particular areas represented by a skill. I like to use fighters as a good example of characters for whom skills often take a back seat. Fighters gonna fight and do it well no matter what and in my experience skill choices can become throwaway parts of these characters. Puzzles are a fantastic way to highlight a skill. Why does your Champion fighter have a huge bonus to their Nature skill? Contributing to help solve a puzzle makes a great time to explore why and discuss with the other characters.
Customizing the puzzles in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything or creating your own means a DM can really tailor the whole thing to the individuals in the party. This might manifest as a puzzle designed specifically as an extremely difficult challenge — even for those characters with super high skill bonuses. But a puzzle can just as easily be far less difficult while speaking closer to whatever areas of skill exist in the party. The Hint Checks component of each example puzzle covers this and even suggests if a character is proficient in an appropriate skill the DM can simply provide the hint — no roll necessary. There’s additional guidelines for using these Hints to address a variety of circumstances.
If you are new to the DM role and looking for fun ways to engage the other players puzzles offer a wonderful avenue to do just this. I posit the material in this section is just as useful for an experienced DM too, if for no other reason than a reminder not to overthink your games too much. Placing unusual situations in adventurers’ paths gives those players a chance to think creatively and use their non-combat features to solve a problem together. This is an awesome situation.
Before wrapping up I want to reiterate how a single puzzle (or a single combat or even a single chamber to explore) is a perfectly terrific way to get started as a DM. Your first session might run for 30 minutes as adventurers enter a cobweb filled room lit by torches on opposite walls, with dust on the floor collected in grooves covering rows of 5 foot square tiles and a solitary arch leading from the room on the opposite side. And of course a cryptic inscription on one wall. Such is the introduction of Reckless Steps, another of the puzzles in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. How the party arrived at this spot and what they’ll discover by solving this puzzle with skill and aplomb is the subject of another session.
Now it’s your turn. How to you deploy puzzles in your 5E D&D games? Do you enjoy testing your characters’ skill against a challenging conundrum? Are you enjoying Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything as much as I am? Sound off in the comments and let me know while you also, of course, stay nerdy!