While ancient ciphers and cunning sphinxes fill the pages of great fantasy tales, crafting a workable and believable puzzle that adds an air of mystery can be a challenge. What makes a great puzzle in a newspaper is rarely right for a puzzle in a dungeon. Puzzles in such publications are usually solved by one person, with no time limit, and modern-day knowledge. None of those things are true in most Pathfinder adventures. In such roleplaying situations you have a team of solvers, often pressed for time, and with only their characters’ knowledge. Just as you customize encounters to your PCs’ skills, you should customize a puzzle to both your players’ skills and their PCs’ characteristics. When putting together a puzzle, riddle, or similar knowledge-based challenge for your campaign, consider the four parts of a well-orchestrated puzzle: the setup, the mechanism, the clues, and the answer.
Giving your puzzle a reason to exist is a crucial step to making sure the players are interested in your game. Any puzzle needs to feel like an important part of an adventure, not a barrier preventing the players from enjoying the experience. There should also be a reason players actually want to solve a puzzle, with at least an implied benefit and penalty if they do or don’t.
Characters who select a life of adventure are not necessarily puzzle solvers, but they are good at getting out of dangerous situations. So when you introduce a puzzle, play to the characters’ strengths—that is, have it matter to the plot of the adventure, or even threaten their lives. Having a dragon promising to roast the PCs alive if they can’t answer its riddles makes finding the proper solution imperative. Alternatively, not every puzzle needs to have a resolution immediately. A meaningful map or pictograph found in a strange ruin might hint at a campaign-spanning plot even though the PCs have no way of knowing that when they discover it. By feeding the PCs more information, through either their own research or later adventures, the GM gives the PCs the tools they need to make revelations without having a plot spoon-fed to them.
Whether a puzzle demands immediate attention or stretches out over several sessions, keep in mind that the game should not stop while it’s being solved. Sometimes impending doom makes solving a puzzle necessary to survive, other times allowing an enigma to baffle players for several sessions makes it a more significant part of the plot. You should also consider the consequences should the PCs fail, and make sure your game can still progress if they do. While coming up with the wrong solution might deny the party some detail, piece of treasure, or option, it should never mean that the adventure comes to a halt.
There are dozens of puzzle types, but not all of them are great for every adventure. When designing a puzzle, consider the story and environment, and decide whether the mechanism fits.
Logic Puzzles: These puzzles are popular, but be careful: when confronted by a logic puzzle, fears of middle-school math class haunt many players’ brains, intimidating them away from even looking at the problem. In addition, all the rules of logic in the real world don’t necessarily apply to a fantasy world. Having such a puzzle be half solved can help players know what state of mind to consider the problem in, and hint at the right path.
Mazes: Complex labyrinths are difficult to use, especially when employing a map and miniatures makes revealing a maze boring and obvious. At best, mazes should be simple, preferably nothing more than a single intersection or two, with the correct choices offering a safe path and the wrong ones leading to peril. Giving the PCs forewarning of the safe path earlier in an adventure or by means of another riddle rewards them for their cleverness, but only penalizes them with traps and additional challenges.
Physical Puzzles: The best types of puzzles are those you can hand out, giving your players something directly from the adventure to manipulate. If they face a door that must be opened, give them a sketch of a combination lock with letters on it and make them remember the name of the centuries-old lich’s lost love. Or just give them a design with seven colored studs that need to be pressed in a hurry—are the buttons random, or does the rainbow shape in the background have some meaning? Physical puzzles can take any form you can imagine, and while they might be labor intensive to create, they can also prove the most memorable.
Riddles: Elusive questions can be the basis for entire adventures. One of the most important parts is to make sure that the answers are comprehensible to the PCs, not just the players. While players know a lot about monsters, treasure, and locations in their universe, not every PC does. Questions with answers that both players and PCs might reasonably know and understand often prove best, as it allows the players to wrack their brains just as their characters world, and not trust in purely real-world knowledge. Thus, if the PCs need to figure out which temple in a massive city contains their foe, a riddle like “I make wolves from men when I arrive, and men from wolves when I depart” could lead to the temple of the moon god.
Wordplay: Assuming your players are comfortable speaking English, you can use puns, anagrams, hidden words, and the like to befuddle them. Often such puzzles come off as being cute or quirky, so make sure that dour wordplay doesn’t undermine your adventure and villains— while a sprite might naturally spout rhyming riddles, the same approach instantly robs a vampire of his menace.
There’s a significant distinction between clues and hints. A clue is something that’s necessary to solve the puzzle. A hint, on the other hand, is something that helps open up an entirely solvable puzzle. While a clue might be meted out by the GM, often in the form of additional details found along with the puzzle, later in a adventure, or from a loose-tongued henchman, hints should be the domain of the PCs and bridge the gap between characters and players. While optimally players should strive to answer a puzzle using only the knowledge their characters possess, this can be a challenge for even the most experienced players. While formulating puzzles with answers that both the players and PCs can solve fixes this problem to a degree, so does having the players work with their PCs to gain hints. It’s wholly possible, even likely, that a character possesses knowledge and insights a player doesn’t. Depending on the complexity of a puzzle, calling for a skill check (typically Perception or a Knowledge skill) or even an Intelligence ability check might provide a hint. While such information might hint at the solution, it shouldn’t blatantly answer the puzzle. This allows a GM to interject some backstory, forgotten detail, or element of his own reasoning into the solving process without merely giving up the answer. Also bear in mind that many spells can read thoughts, reveal hints, or otherwise affect or circumvent puzzles. Never deny PCs use of their abilities when faced with puzzles. Should those abilities make a puzzle less challenging than anticipated, reward the party for their cleverness, and perhaps consider such factors in future puzzles.
Regardless of the type of puzzle, the answer should mean something. Perhaps the answer is the command word to a powerful wand, or the riddle of the three gems results in the players ending up with a magical treasure. An unmemorable answer is easy to spot, such as a number or piece of unrelated trivia. If your answer is unmemorable, the puzzle leading up to it might seem pointless. Make the players need the answer and they’ll be excited about getting it.
It helps if the answer is something the players might think of when they’re trying to figure out what type of brainbender you’ve thrown at them. A pirate’s riddle might have a nautical theme, for example, or a sphinx’s might concern the desert or ancient ruins. Just make sure the solution’s possibilities aren’t too broad or too narrow. For example, there are lots of animals, but not many seasons, making the latter the source of more achievable answers.
Noted here are three classic types of fantasy riddles. If you’re looking for more riddles, a simple online search for fantasy puzzles and riddles can reveal hundreds more.
Here are a few basic question-and-answer riddles.
Riddle: What question can you ask all day and get a different correct answer every time? Answer: “What time is it?” What falls every day but never breaks? Answer: “Night.” What can you put in a wood box that will make it lighter? Answer: “Holes.”
This is a simple and famous logic puzzle, wherein two guards protect two pathways, one to danger and one to safety. They present the conundrum that one always lies and one always tells the truth. Now have the PCs decide which is which. While a spell like detect lies might easily reveal this, so can posing questions with blatantly true answers (like simple equations), or a question like “If I asked you if the door you’re guarding leads to safety, would you say yes?” wherein the guard is forced to answer truthfully.
Riddles like this require the solver to find the next in a sequence, though many might require a hint or visual que.
Riddle: What are the next 3 letters after “O, T, T, F, F, S, S”? Answer: E, N, T. The first seven letters stand for: “one,” “two,” “three,” “four,” “five,” “six,” “seven.”