RPG Puzzles: Interview With an Expert Puzzle Designer

If you’ve visited our website before you know that we’re fans of puzzles for RPGs by Dungeonvault. These puzzles are great for more reasons than we can go into now. And today I have the honor of sitting down with the brains behind the operation; expert puzzle designer Paul Camp, to ask him how he comes up with it all and what advice he has for anyone running puzzles in a RPG.

Dark Ulf: You’ve created the world’s largest collection of illustrated puzzles for RPGs. When did you decide to do that? And how do you come up with it all?

Paul Camp: Thank you for having me. That just sort of happened. My players wanted puzzles for our game so I started creating them in Photoshop. After a while, other DMs asked if they could use my puzzles for their games. Then a DM told me how he made a bit of money with products he sold online to fund his weekly games and I should do the same. I didn’t think many people would be interested but I guessed a little beer and pretzel money for our weekly games would come in handy. So started selling puzzles.

Dark Ulf: Okay. But how do you go from funding your weekly game to creating hundreds of RPG puzzles and becoming an expert?

Paul Camp: That really wasn’t the plan. I just love creating puzzles. And if you do it often enough you learn from your mistakes and become better at it. The goal wasn’t to build expertise. You just enjoy what you do and keep doing it.

Dark Ulf: Learn from your mistakes. Did you make a lot of mistakes?

Paul Camp: Haha, Yes! I think I might have made them all. And I thank my players for suffering through my experiments with me. With puzzles, there are so many things you can do wrong in terms of design. But after a while, you learn to recognize the pitfalls.  

Dark Ulf: Isn’t that frustrating? And have you been able to design the perfect RPG puzzle yet?

Paul Camp: No it’s not frustrating. Whenever I DM a game and something doesn’t run smooth that’s game designer gold. Because you know other DMs are frustrated by the same thing. And if I can design a better solution or puzzle, it’s like solving a puzzle of your own.

It also helps that I don’t have a deadline when coming up with a new design. So it’s stress-free for me. And as far as designing the perfect puzzle goes. I don’t think there’s such a thing. You can pick goals for your puzzles and create different experiences. But no one puzzle can do it all. But that’s another thing I love about puzzles. They are all such unique experiences.

Dark Ulf: What’s the longest you’ve spent on designing a puzzle?

Paul Camp: I believe that was the Game of Shields which is both a puzzle and a system for running politics in RPGs. We playtested it for about seven years. One of the big surprises to me when designing puzzles was that they are really small stand-alone logical rule systems and as such can do double duty as rule systems you can add to your RPG. So with the Game of Shields players are solving political puzzles in a sense.

Puzzles can be small or big. You can make a small puzzle to lock a door, but also one that structures your entire campaign.

Dark Ulf: What’s the most popular puzzle you’ve created?

Paul Camp: I believe it’s a tie between lock puzzles and rune puzzles. Both are puzzles that you can place onto objects such as a door or a spellbook. So they are very easy to integrate with any campaign.

Dark Ulf: What puzzle design are you most proud of?

Paul Camp: In terms of puzzle design I like floor puzzles best. I created four tavern mini-games with simple rule sets. And those rules correspond with the rules for solving four types of floor puzzles. There were so many small technical things that needed to come together for it to work that I was a bit surprised they did. Of course, a complicated design isn’t always better. Sometimes the hardest thing is keeping things simple.

Dark Ulf: What is your advice for dungeonmasters who are just starting out with running puzzles in their RPGs?

Paul Camp: To just have fun with it, obviously. Other than that it’s probably best if the first puzzles you introduce don’t take more than 5 to 10 minutes to solve. Players enjoy puzzles more that have a clear path to solving them but require some work to finish. So a puzzle with a hundred easy steps is better than a puzzle with one impossibly difficult step.

If players do become stuck, I usually offer them the option of rolling an intelligence check. After all, puzzles should also challenge the characters. On a successful check, give them the next step of the puzzle but not the whole solution. And that’s another reason why you want a hundred small steps instead of one difficult one.

Dark Ulf: That’s good advice. What do you do if there’s one player in your party who doesn’t like puzzles?

Paul Camp: In RPGs, there are different types of challenges. Some players don’t like combat but they still participate so other players can have fun. With Roleplaying games it’s give and take and you’re part of a team. Still, you can add different tasks for players who don’t enjoy puzzles that are still instrumental to solving the puzzle. Maybe a fighter holds of goblins until other party members solve the puzzle. Or you can add a lever on the ceiling a rogue must pull to reveal the last puzzle piece. With puzzles, it’s easy to add different challenges.

Mostly I find some players are shy about problem-solving in front of their friends. Nobody likes to be judged. But that’s not very different than being shy about roleplaying in front of your friends. Once you see everyone appreciates your participation it becomes fun. And that’s what RPGs are all about.

Dark Ulf:  I couldn’t agree more. Paul, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share your insights with us. If readers would like to learn more about his work you can visit our webshop or Dungeonvault.com.

Dark Ulf – Putting Puzzles into D&D games since 2009

Dark Ulf is the founder and editor of DNDpuzzles.com. When not writing for DNDpuzzles he travels the multiverse and destroys demons with a crossbow in one hand and a crossword in the other.

We hope this site inspires you to put more puzzles into your D&D games.