Running even a single good puzzle in your D&D adventure is not easy. You need to come up with a puzzle that fits the story, is engaging, and is above all, well-designed.
A lot of time can go into setting up just one puzzle. But when you’re running a D&D puzzle adventure you’re managing multiple puzzles. An average puzzle adventure usually contains about 5 to 7 puzzles.
Running puzzle adventures can be a huge time sink and there’s a lot that can go wrong unless you have a plan. So here’s our tried and tested plan for running D&D puzzle adventures like nobody’s business.
1. Choose the Right Puzzles
Designing and illustrating your own custom puzzles is probably the biggest time suck in the history of D&D. There are so many details and considerations that go into creating a good puzzle. You could well spend two hours or more on a puzzle that players solve in minutes.
Now consider having to come up with 5 puzzle designs AND a story that logically connects all of them. If you have to do all of that work yourself, you’ll probably spend over 20 hours on your puzzle adventure.
We don’t even bother creating our own puzzles. For 5 bucks you can get a heap of professionally designed premade puzzles that come fully illustrated and are easy to adapt to just about any story.
So let’s say you get a premade pack of puzzles. We’ll choose Lock Puzzles for this example. It comes with just 9 puzzle locks that each holds 3 key pieces. But by combining those locks you can create up to 500 different puzzles.
Lock Puzzles can be dropped onto any object you wish to lock. A door is an obvious choice but you can also lock a wizard’s tome, treasure chest, or anything else you can think of really.
2. Lay Out Your Puzzles
The second step to running a great D&D puzzle adventure is to lay out your puzzles in a way where solving one puzzle will lead to the clues or key pieces needed to solve the next puzzle. You can do this by layering puzzles. Here’s how you do that:
For our adventure example, the PCs are doing a dungeon crawl. They enter the first room of the dungeon which is scattered with skeletons who have fallen in battle. And there are two doors. The left door holds a single puzzle lock and the right door holds two such locks.
The PCs search the bodies and find 5 key pieces. Since each puzzle lock holds only 3 pieces, they have enough pieces to open the left door. But the right door holds two puzzle locks and needs a total of 6 pieces to open.
The players manage to use the puzzle pieces to open the left door and enter a small kitchen. Hidden behind the stove is the sixth key piece. They head back to the right door and use the six pieces to open this door.
Players had to first solve the left door puzzle before they were able to obtain all the key pieces for solving the right door puzzle. All you need to do to create such a setup is hide a single piece behind a locked door.
You can create some very complicated strings of puzzles with this technique. And they don’t have to be linear. Our affiliate who designed this puzzle actually has an insightful article on how to layer door puzzles effectively on their website.
3. Make your Puzzles Progressively Harder
Another thing we wanted to illustrate with this example is how the first puzzle was really easy. Fitting just three key pieces into a puzzle lock requires no explanation. But the second door held two puzzle locks. And while there are many ways to fill out one lock, there’s only one way to fill out two.
For the third door, you could use three puzzle locks. And the final lock could hold as many as nine locks. That challenge takes the average group of players about 20 minutes to solve.
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4. Add a Story to your D&D Puzzle Adventure
By using the lock puzzles you can easily layout a string of puzzles for players to solve. And a dungeon crawl is probably the easiest way to control how players explore your story. But once you have the basic structure down of how puzzles are connected in your adventure, you can start to make things more interesting.
If you know the order in which PCs will explore rooms, you can add chapters of your story to each room. Maybe players discover in the first room that the skeletons belong to dwarves from the same clan who turned on each other. The natural question players will ask is why loyal clan dwarves would turn on each other?
The next room is the kitchen and here the players find a vial still smelling of hallucinogenic mushrooms. That might explain the dwarves’ erratic behavior. But who could have slipped the toxin into their food and why?
With each room, you can create a situation that begs the next question. And this leads PCs further into your story. Of course, not every new chapter needs to lie behind a door. PCs could encounter a greedy goblin who will fight them for key pieces. You can stick key pieces to the ceiling and have players climb up to reach them. This is where you let your imagination run free to add some variety.
Another way to add more variety to your D&D adventure is by switching out a few lock puzzles for other types of puzzles. In our webshop, we have a range of puzzles that work very well in almost any adventure.
Finally, the puzzle doesn’t have to be located on a door. You can place them on the end boss just as easily. What if the boss at the end of your dungeon were a Copper Dragon and players need to place all the key pieces on its body to defeat it? Here’s an article we wrote about how to use puzzles in combat.