Riddles and Puzzles

Also, a bit on traps that is insightful (from EnWorld)
Unlike previous editions, 4e specifically gave traps roles. “Lurker” traps have been used poorly in the past, especially a pit trap in the middle of nowhere (well, a place where the PCs would go). A trap should be part of an encounter, where everyone can do something. Even a pit trap has a purpose now, you just put it in the part of the room where the PCs are likely to get good cover from ranged (put the mouse trap where the mice will go) and then watch as the ranger, wizard or what you falls down in the midst of raging combat. All of a sudden, the “cost” of the trap isn’t the loss of a little time, the loss of a few hit points, the loss of a few spells, or the use of a few healing surges. You have a PC stuck down there, not dishing out damage or effects, maybe they don’t have the Athletics skill and need rescuing, maybe it’s the fighter who fell down there and so there’s no one anchoring the front line… it’s even worse if the kobolds rush forward with lamp oil and torches and throw them down the pit, or there’s a swarm of scorpions down there or something.

Back to the main topic:

I ran a portion of White Plume Mountain (WPM) in honor of EGG’s passing. I have noticed that many of his modules have elements that challenge the player directly and not just the PC via game mechanics. These are through riddles and puzzles. Looking back over my gaming career, I do not recall significant number of these “player challenges”, either as a player or as a GM. The design of two of these challenges in the module I believe gives great insight into a formulaic approach that can be applied to more easily incorporate these types of challenges. Below I will list the key aspects and then I will analyze some challenges from the module and that I have seen.

Player Challenges


Anything in the module that challenges the player’s thinking outside of their character (ie, not roleplaying and not combat). There are two types for these purposes — Riddles and Puzzles. Riddles are quick-hitters that players either know or can quickly reason out. It does not have to be a riddle, but it mostly challenges knowledge and reasoning. Puzzles are more complex that require longer chains of logic. These are probably not something that can be just figured out off the top of your head.

Placement & Pacing

Player Challenges are a key change of pace of a module. You must make sure its placement makes sense and fits the overall flow of your adventure.

Setting Appropriateness

Although puzzles and riddles challenge the player, the GM should work to make the material appropriate to setting so as not to break verisimilitude. For example, a riddle from a sphinx in a D&D setting whose answer is “refrigerator” will break the players out of setting and adventure.


In these cases, the GM has to be mindful that players may get the challenge right off the bat. On the other hand, they may not figure it out without extensive hints. The best design (in my opinion) is that the puzzle or riddle is a method to avoid a level appropriate encounter (monster, trap, etc). If the players figure it out, they avoid something nasty. If they fail, they have an appropriate encounter in its place.

ADDENDUM – See Three Clue Rule for excellent advice. The Three Clue Rule concept is that there should be three clues available to players to resolve a Chokepoint. Riddles and Puzzles tend to be placed in adventures as Chokepoints, and thus the article broadens my overall thoughts on the topic.


The GM should allow a couple of minutes for Riddles and up to 10 minutes for Puzzles. Allowing more time risks having only one or two players engaged for long periods of time. The other players will disengage.

H2. Examples

Riddle 1 from WPM

The first encounter in the module are riddles from a sphinx. If you got the riddle, you could proceed down one of the corridors (the module has 3 independent adventures/prongs). Failure triggered a nasty trap.

Analysis: The placement was excellent. It put the players on notice that they needed to use their brains and not just the PC’s brawn. The riddles appeared setting appropriate (you could see the PCs knowing these answers – akin to those in The Hobbit). The resolution was an avoidance of an at level trap. Rogues would still have an opportunity to avoid, and saving throws were available. Timing was not explicit, but having interaction with an NPC (sphinx) implied that the players could not take all day.

Grade: A: – perfect.

Riddle 2 from WPM

About mid-point into the adventure, the PCs encounter a room with the following description:

Five large, corpselike figures stand lined up against
the far wall. Each has a different number carved
into the flesh of its chest. At the sound of the door
opening, one of the figures turns its head and
speaks. One of us does not belong with the others,
it says. If you can pick out the interloper, we will
allow you passage. If you pick the wrong one, we
will kill you. You have 1 minute, and one guess.

Analysis: The placement was ok. The key to picking out the interloper lies in the numbers. I won’t give the numbers, but anyone with some modest math skills can easily figure it out. In my opinion, this is where the challenge fell flat — it just did not feel like something the PCs would be “trained” in except perhaps a mage. The resolution was an avoidance of a reasonable fight. Timing was explicit and reasonable.

Grade: C-: Placement was OK and the “riddle” just felt too modern.

The classic door lock

This is a popular one. The famous one in literature is “Speak Friend and Enter.” I had one in my 3.0 pre-Temple campaign – the PCs had to figure out a combination to get into an old sealed underground mountain pass before a dragon brought a tower down on their head. I remember Big Dog’s early campaign with ROY G BIV (and a Suri tiger trying to kills us whilst G$ was puzzling it out).

Analysis: Generally the placement and theme of these challenges are very good. The show stopper can be if the players just to not get it. In both the live campaigns the players (Kludy in mine, G$ in Big’s) were able to figure it out with killing too much momentum. However, it can bring a session to a screeching halt while the GM tries to give hints without giving up the answer too easy.

Grade: D+: The risk of a log-jammed session is the culprit here.

Pillar Island Puzzle

I cannot comment on placement – it seems reasonable given the whole adventure was a player-challenge design. The resolution was very good – you figure it out you bypass the chimera. If not, you fight the nasty beast. The grade is lowered purely from timing – I think the group spent an hour on it (maybe it just seemed that long). After about 10 minutes, half the group started to disengage. Another 10 minutes and it was down to Jo and Big Dog stubbornly grinding it out.

Grade: C: This would have been an A if not for the show-stopper time. Overall, it was good design. It just needed to have a shorter fuse.

Overall, it is not to say you cannot deviate from this formula. I think it is a good formula for GMs who want to put in a few player challenges. Adventures like The Tomb of Horrors and the Five Pillars (from what I have read) are built on challenging the players much more than the PCs. Thus, a few show stoppers will naturally occur in those types of modules. If you chose to deviate, just keep in mind that you might slow the pace of your game. Plan a backup for these cases.

Riddles and Puzzles

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