Presenting the party with a puzzle is a great way to challenge your players in D&D 5E beyond the standard hack-and-slash monster encounter – but coming up with something that is neither too hard nor too easy and is simple to implement in your adventure can be a challenge on its own!
So, in this guide, we’ll give you our take on how to make awesome puzzles for D&D 5E – and share sample easy-to-use riddles and inspiration to other puzzles that you can always use on the fly.
Well, D&D is a roleplaying game, and although it feels great to chop off the head of a hydra, it can also end up feeling a bit stale – there is a handful of them after all!
Like a social encounter or a terrain hazard, puzzles are one of the greatest tools a DM has to present the heroes with a challenge that isn’t just solved with brute and brawn, and one of the few things that’ll make the party regret that they all dumped their Intelligence score.
That said, puzzles also have the built-in advantage that they can be used almost anywhere – such as giving a much-needed breather from the constant action of a good ol’ dungeon crawl.
For example, forcing the characters to solve a puzzle to reach a sealed-off section of the dungeon, or to pass some kind of test to finally reach the treasure vault they’re seeking, will undoubtedly make it feel more well-deserved and much more epic.
Of course, conjuring a great riddle or creating an intricate puzzle design that will challenge the characters (without being so difficult that it sets the pace of your game in a stalemate!) isn’t necessarily an easy task for the DM – and if you aren’t careful you might end up spending hours of tedious planning to create a challenge that isn’t even a guaranteed success.
That’s where this guide comes into play!
How to use puzzles?
Let’s start by breaking down what puzzles are – aside from a plot tool.
At its core, a puzzle can be any kind of challenge that requires the party to use their wits to come up with a solution to it. Often a puzzle in D&D 5E will either be some kind of construction (e.g. something that can only be opened in a specific way) or a riddle – which is basically just a verbal puzzle that is typically phrased as a question.
What’s the Purpose?
The important thing to consider here is the purpose behind the puzzle.
As a GM, you always need to consider why the challenge would be there in the first place (and who would have done so), and what the reward for solving it is – or the punishment for not doing so!
Let us start with the why.
Why a Puzzle or Riddle?
Out-of-game, a puzzle serves the purpose of being awesome, but it must also serve an in-game purpose to actually be so.
The function of a puzzle is usually to present some kind of obstacle for the party. So, as a DM, your first question when designing a puzzle or a riddle should be why it exists.
Is the puzzle supposed to protect something important such as a secret passage or a treasure? Does it guard information? Is it a fun challenge at a carnival? Is it a test to see if someone is worthy? Or is it simply an obstacle that has been placed for the amusement of some entity?
Well, either of the above can be plausible, but it’s your job to make sure it seems so! A puzzle that serves no purpose and has no reason to be can quickly end up feeling like a (really) random encounter.
How to Present a Puzzle?
Properly presenting a puzzle is one of the most important steps in making it a fun experience.
Many puzzles are physical objects that require the party to figure out a mechanism to crack them – and in some cases, these kinds of puzzles don’t need any introduction aside from describing how it looks and letting the players figure out the mechanism to solve it from there.
In other cases, a written hint indicating the theme of the puzzle, a knowledge check, or an NPC hinting at the solution earlier on, will go a long way in making the players understand what kind of solution they need to come up with.
Riddles, which can basically be defined as puzzles that consist of words and are often posed as a question, are some of the most frequently used puzzles in fantasy lore – and for good reason!
They are often rather simple (although they can be hard to solve!), and in the context of D&D 5E that means that they are easy to present for the DM – and often won’t slow down your session to a halt as you can easily drop a hint or two, allow for an Intelligence check or whatever, if you feel it’s starting to drag on.
Of course, a riddle won’t just present itself. It needs someone or something to state it.
The easiest solution to that is to just have the riddle be written down, perhaps in some scripture than isn’t Common, just to make it a little more exciting. The other solution is to have some kind of cool creature present it to the party!
Below are some examples of entities that could demand the answer to a riddle:
- A knowledgeable sphinx or a spectral being
- A magical object or powerful entity communicating telepathically
- A devious devil or a sly dragon
Even a simple riddle can be hard to crack for the wisest of wizards!
What is the reward?
Solving a puzzle should always result in some kind of reward.
It doesn’t have to be something tangible or materialistic – D&D is not the real world! – but there should be at least some kind of reward for solving it such as acquiring information, attaining an object, or gaining entrance to a location.
Below are some common examples of rewards that answering a riddle could typically entail:
- Avoiding punishment
- Getting passage to a location
- Receiving an important piece of information
- Being rewarded with an item, an object, or a blessing
- Activating a portal as a means of transportation
- Uncovering a secret passage, a hidden door, or an ancient tomb as illusion magic fades away after answering the riddle
How to Create a Puzzle
So, with these base components in mind, this is what you should consider before creating your puzzle:
- What is the puzzle’s purpose (e.g. is it protecting something, is it a test of worthiness, etc)?
- How is it presented?
- What is the reward for solving it – or punishment for not doing so!
Great. Now the only thing left is to actually create the puzzle.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-it-all’ formula when it comes to puzzles – they’re extremely situational in the sense that a puzzle might fit great into one scenario, but be completely misplaced in another.
In general, though, you need to consider the theme of the area where the puzzle is encountered: A dungeon built by dwarves might feature various puzzles revolving around runes, while a gnome tinkerer’s mansion would more likely have puzzles based on complex constructions, and a hag’s lair would be something vile such as requiring the characters to make a blood sacrifice.
Riddles are by far the easiest puzzles to implement as they can just be presented as a written scripture – and you’d basically just need to design a riddle that fits the overall theme of where and how it is encountered.
Designing a puzzle from the bottom is a tedious task – especially when you have no clue where to start. That’s why I suggest the ‘reverse process’ of first outlining the goal of the puzzle, how it is presented, and the reward for solving it (or consequences for failing), as that’d give you a framework to work from.
After that, it’s time to do some research – and in that regard, Google is your friend.
Say, that I’ve decided to create a puzzle that does the following:
- Goal. Protect a sealed-off vault in a dungeon.
- Presentation. An imprenetable adamantine door.
- Reward: Getting into the treasure room!
A Google search on “fun door puzzle” quickly brings up a few suitable ideas that I can work with.
Puzzle Example: Safe or Unsafe?
The first hit is a door puzzle by Critical Roll’s Matt Mercer already designed for D&D:
- A door has 5 locks. Above each of them is written a word or a symbol that reads along the lines of ‘Safe’ (Sanctuary, Home, Shelter, etc.) or Unsafe (Danger, Pain, Death etc.). To open the door, you basically just need to pick the locks that are labeled as safe – whereas attempting to pick the other ones triggers a nasty trap!
Simple as that! Of course, this puzzle depends on the linguistic capabilities of your adventuring party, but you can always allow characters proficient in History, Religion, or the other non-so-often-used knowledge skills to make a roll and see if they can get a hint. And, even if the party can’t solve the puzzle, they can still open the door. It will just be much more painful.
If you think this puzzle would be cool, go ahead and design some thematically fitting traps for the dungeon, perhaps place a hint or two about the solution throughout the dungeon, and make a description for the door that fits well with the dungeon’s theme (the locks might display faces of the creatures who created the dungeon, their mouth being the keyhole, for example).
Puzzle Example: Move the Coins
Another great puzzle that showed up in my Google search is a bit more complex (for the players) but easy to implement (for the DM).
Take six coins and arrange them in a triangle (as shown in the image below. Now the player characters need to rearrange these coins into a hexagon with just four moves to do so. At the same time, every move consists of sliding one coin to a new location where it touches at least two other coins.
Now, euros obviously don’t fit into a D&D theme, and coins don’t really sit well on a door. But the idea is there – and you can easily replace the coins with runes or other symbols that can be moved around on the door, for example.
To make it clear how the characters can solve the puzzle and that they only have 4 moves to do so, you can add a cryptic message above the door:
“From three corners to none the symbols must be reshaped to enter – each must always touch another pair, do this with as few moves as the corners of a square”
Depending on how proficient your players are at these kinds of puzzles, you can make it more clear how it’s supposed to be solved. For example, you can have the character with the highest Intelligence score deduce the literal description of how to solve the puzzle (as given above).
Of course, you also need to consider the consequences of not solving the puzzle in four moves. While highly dependent on the context, solving the puzzle incorrectly may trigger a trap before the puzzle’s symbols magically reforms into a triangle after 1 minute, allowing the characters to try again.
Perhaps forming a circle with the symbols may even be enough to open the door, but using more than four moves still triggers the trap. Or perhaps the characters only have one attempt – or will have to find another way in! That’s all up to you.
How to Use Riddles
I did warn you that some puzzles can be a little complex to explain and present.
Luckily, riddles are anything but! Yes, they can be hard to crack (for the players), but they are easy to implement in your game, and not too hard to come by.
When designing a riddle, you can use the same process as for any other puzzle.
In terms of presentation, the easiest route for a riddle is to simply have it be written somewhere (think of the secret door to the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings), but while that’ll often work out great, sometimes you’d rather want some entity to present it.
In any case, the theme of the riddle(s) should always correspond to the setting it is presented within and the purpose behind it. Let me illustrate this with a few examples:
The characters need to enter a sealed-off tomb, but in order to do so, they need to convince a being that they are worthy in the eyes of an entity.
If that being is an ancient treant or a druid may ask nature-themed riddles or riddles that prove the characters to be kind-hearted creatures, while a sly devil would be more inclined to ask riddles rooted in the sins of men, and a sphinx may prefer riddles on other aspects of life.
Below is a collection of riddles of our own making with a distinct theme that you can use depending on the context of the riddle and who’s presenting it!
Riddles of Nature
I never rest, I’m never still, I move silently from hill to hill,
I do not walk, I do not run, All is cool where I am not
Answer: The Sun
I can run, but I never walk, I have a mouth, but never talk,
I have a head, but do not weep, I have a bed but do not sleep
Answer: A River
Riddles of Virtue
I’m born in fear, yet brave and bold, Expressed in the heart of young and old,
Revered by warriors, craved by cowards, I show myself in the darkest hours
A righteous blade, your acts I weigh, A balanced creed, I rule by deeds,
A fit display, the debt repaid, Enact the law, Although I’m more
Riddles of Sin
I thrill at your misfortune, I despise your luck,
Your traits, your status, I crave what you got,
Your success, your rewards, you deserve it not
My retribution is threefold if you cause me pain, My judgment falls with no disdain,
I hear no excuse, revenge is my right, Those who wield me I follow day and night
Riddles of Life
I bring back the dead, Bring you joy and dread,
What Am I that makes you laugh and cry,
Born in an instant yet lasting a lifetime
Between the two, I’m hidden lore,
If you share me, I am no more
Answer: A Secret
I can only be broken by not being kept
Answer: A Promise
I never was, yet am to be,
All who live will always see
Puzzles are great fun and can create some fantastic roleplaying scenarios that have the party use their wit rather than their brawn – and can give a much-needed breather from the constant battle action in a dungeon.
However, designing a puzzle can entail hours of tedious preparation as a DM, especially if you don’t really know where to start, but taking a reverse approach where you decide on the context of the puzzle in three simple steps before designing it will make it a lot easier:
- What’s the purpose of the puzzle?
- How is it presented?
- What are the rewards and/or consequences?
After this, it’s time to do some research to design the actual puzzle – but because you need what role it’s supposed to play, this will be a lot easier than designing a puzzle from scratch.
Googling for various search terms determined by what type of puzzle can work wonders and often requires just a few tweaks and little thought to make it match your needs – but you can also take direct inspiration from famous puzzle masters such as Henry Dudeney, the author of the Canterbury Puzzles.
And if you don’t want to spend the time making your own puzzles, there are also a lot of awesome resources specifically designed for D&D 5E – such as our own sourcebook Milando’s Guide to Magical Marvels which features numerous premade puzzles that you can drop into any game!