Idea Collection: Puzzles (I)

Posted by The Architect on July - 17 - 2016

Designing puzzles is one of the hardest parts of RPG creation. We want them to be creative and unique, but not beyond all common sense; interesting and challenging, but not frustrating. And for the icing on the cake, they should fit into the game world as well as possible (nothing like having to navigate a Sokoban puzzle to reach the royal treasure chamber – I’m sure the king and treasurer also do this every time).

In general, people who are good at solving puzzles also tend to be good at creating them. If you are not one of those people, or even don’t really like solving puzzles yourself, don’t feel obligated to include them “just because”. It is true that an RPG which has combat as its only gameplay element will feel boring after some time, but there are other methods of diversion. If the player can interact with a lot of elements in a given location, i.e. read books, drink from fountains, turn a candelabra to open a secret door, that’s probably enough; and even in the deepest dungeon, far from all civilization, there might be beings to have a chat with, like talking statues, sociable undead, spirits trapped in a crystal ball, a water elemental inhabiting an underground river. Lots of interesting non-combat gameplay without need for any puzzles.

You are still here? Well then! When I created Temple of Eternity, I challenged myself to furnish each dungeon with a different type of puzzle. That was a foolish undertaking that cost me a lot of brain cells, but eventually I ended up with a veritable puzzle library, part of which is listed below. I hope you find them inspiring. Just keep the following in mind…

hp-toe-shot-shrine The Shrine of Air near the end of the game is basically one huge, complex puzzle. (Picture from the editor)

Forethought: Puzzles and the Game World

The less abstract RPGs become, the more out of place such abstract puzzles seem to be. Why would anyone protect their treasures and secret corridors with a block-pushing puzzle instead of a simple key or a deadly trap? Now I’m personally all for including such a puzzle every once in a while, especially since I’m of the firm opinion that an RPG should be something else than just combat, loot and level-ups; however, if you can make the puzzle fit into the game world, it will greatly benefit the atmosphere and immersiveness of your game. I try to alter the puzzles in such a way that they seem to fit their environment.

Statues, heavy rocks, scrolls with mysterious letters on them, all these things have their place in the average fantasy world. It becomes vastly more difficult once we start to include laser beams, reflecting mirrors, advanced mechanics, color-changing walls and similar elements. And that’s not even including questions like “does the king do this every time he needs his scepter from the treasure chamber?”

Of course, you can also simply not care: There is a highly developed RPG out there (a JRPG admittedly, but still) where the designers happily included the Fibunacci numbers and Euler’s constant in its puzzles. At this point, I think, you could also make use of Star Trek trivia questions or something, just because. (Then again, that game also has vampires as random encounters in the open desert and sandworms prowling underground caverns, so whatever.)

To sum it up: By sacrificing atmosphere, we will definitely lower the fun for many players. By including such puzzles, we will heighten the fun for others. Your choice, just be aware.

Alright, now on to the puzzles!


The Sliding Statues

It is actually not necessary that these be statues, but they work pretty well flavor-wise. The general idea is that there are five devices in a room, each of which is equipped with a sliding window that reveals one letter at a time; they can be activated to show another one of all in all five different letters. Example – five lizardman statues:

  • Statue 1: W-S-A-C-Q
  • Statue 2: O-T-N-Z-K
  • Statue 3: J-U-A-L-B
  • Statue 4: D-R-K-M-P
  • Statue 5: A-I-E-G-N

I think it is self-explanatory that the player has to slide the letters in such a way that the statues, if taken together, display a word that has something to do with the place’s theme. In this case, we have the lizardmen as indication, and indeed, finding the word “snake” shouldn’t be too difficult. Ta-da, the secret door opens.

Variations: More statues, more letters (although you should probably stop way before “ventriloquism”). The letters cannot be read unless a party member knows the lizard language. The statues are scattered throughout the dungeon. The order in which they should be read is unclear. There is more than one solution (take another look at the letters above!) – there is more than enough room for this puzzle to show up repeatedly during the adventure, each time more difficult, so the player has the chance to learn and practice.

As for atmosphere: In Temple, the lizardmen statues are found in the serpent crypts. In dwarven crypts, we would rather have dwarven statues with solutions like “forge” or “stone”.



Been there, done that. Move big blocks through a maze onto a bunch of pressure plates; if all of those are held down (and nothing except the blocks will do), the portal opens.

The concept isn’t terribly original, and I think any tile-based RPG that includes at least some puzzles has a bunch of pressure plates somewhere. However, there is a lot of room for variation beyond the basic concept:

  • Move the blocks/crates/whatever in such a way that you can find a path through them, no matter where the blocks themselves end up
  • Some of the pressure plates do not only count for the end goal, but also open single doors on their own; the player has to open those doors temporarily to get more blocks (or move others to their end destination), then return the first blocks to their own end positions
  • Some of the spaces are slippery, causing the blocks to continue on their path according to their last direction; maybe they change gliding direction when hitting certain other objects
  • Some of the spaces are actually teleporters, which can of course be switched on and off
  • The blocks can be moved only indirectly, by various levers and buttons
  • The puzzle appears impossible to solve – unless the player finds out that some of the dungeon walls are just illusions, or realizes that she can use Teleport spells to get past the blocks so she can push them from different directions.

A completely different way to make your pushing puzzle appear original is to change the flavor, away from the rather abstract crates and pressure plates. There is no law that says it has to be blocks and pressure plates – we only need specific (heavy) items and clearly defined positions. In ToE’s “Halls of Blind Sight”, the player has to push large mirrors in front of demonic eyes in the walls, so she can walk through the dungeon unobserved. The game triggers are still pressure plates (in front of the eyes), but they have been rendered invisible so that the eyes seem to be the triggers. It’s still Sokoban, but it also fits the game world much better now, enhancing the atmosphere.

Go for the eyes! It’s just pressure plates and crates, but I think the flavor does a lot here.

Letter Clues

In a way, this is a more general version of the Sliding Statues: The level contains various devices that give hints to certain letters; the player has to collect and combine the letters to get the solution. There are a lot of options here to moderate the difficulty:

  • The devices simply display the letter
  • The devices display poems where each line begins with the same letter
  • The devices display logical exclusion puzzles (“This one can be found often in a desert, but not in a door” – solution: “e”)
  • Five devices stand in the open and give the letters to the first solution; three others are hidden behind secret doors, extending the solution to a different word that opens a different door
  • The order of the letters is unclear
  • The letters do not form a word, but instead give directions if read in the correct order; using NESW for the cardinal directions, FWEA for doors showing the four elements, XYQZ for doors showing the four archdemons (the names of which begin with those letters) and so on
  • The devices’ displayings can only be read if a party member knows a certain language, wears glasses of a certain color or has the spell “Truesight” active

…and so on. Probably my favorite is the puzzle in the shrine of the fallen war goddess Anathra Mor, where carvings on stone columns name the participants of a huge battle and which side they fought on. Noting the names according to the sides gives each side a list of letters; delete all that appear on both sides and the rest give the solution. (Yes, this a completely optional location.)

Invisible Paths

Another classic with numerous variations. Note that due to their maze-like character, these puzzles will rarely meet a positive response; they usually do not challenge the player’s creative thinking, but rather his patience, which is a bad thing to test. I like to hide an item nearby (behind a puzzle more of the logic type) that shows the correct way or otherwise makes the puzzle significantly easier; people who are actually more of the patient type, i.e. grinding fans, can still find the path in the usual way and don’t have to put up with the other puzzle.

The first and most widely known incarnation of this puzzle type is the maze with the invisible walls. Unless it’s pretty small, the best way to solve this might be to manually and systematically draw a map, piece by piece. Whether the surroundings are kept in total darkness or simply consist of identical tiles in all directions is irrelevant.

A little more sophisticated are the puzzles where the player can easily cross the room, but the door on the other side will only open if she has followed the correct path. Letter clues can come into play here (“NNEEENWN”; “follow the name of the death god”, with every tile bearing a different letter), while another method might be “light barriers”: Statues cast their view from the sidelines, and the player must figure out the correct way where she can hide behind seemingly random wall pieces. For added challenge, have the statues change their view angle or move along predictable paths.

If you really want to test the player’s patience, don’t use simple walls to block off incorrect paths. Rather, make them teleport traps so that the player has to start from the beginning after every mistake, or actually lethal traps so that one wrong step means a trip to savegame land. Or make it nearly deadly traps and set the paths up in such a way that the player actually has to cross one of these traps to make it to the other side. Will they ever figure out?

Use This Here

In general, the game mechanic of using specific items with specific parts of the environment is more at home in the adventure genre; in non-Ultima RPGs, fitting keys into door locks or delivering item X to questgiver Y is usually it. There is a lot of design space here, and it works perfectly for puzzles.

  • Throughout the game world, the party can find shrines dedicated to various gods and make sacrifices there. Depending on how valuable the sacrifice was and whether it belonged to the god’s domain (which can be deducted or found out in cultist books; for instance, magic scrolls for the goddess of knowledge), the god will reward them with a blessing or an item. Maybe this is the only or the most reliable way of obtaining dragon-slaying weapons or high-level spells?
  • The massive portal to the forgotten deep dwarf mines cannot be opened by usual means, but on each side it has two small receptacles. Cryptic clues (maybe letter clues as above, maybe riddles written in the dwarven language) reveal that certain types of jewels have to be put into each of the receptacles (for instance “only gems will open the GATE” – a garnet, aquamarine, topaz, emerald are required)
  • And then there are magical (one-shot) items which have uses that may or may not have spell skill equivalents. Even if they do, though, I like having the items available in case the party’s wizard dies, doesn’t learn the spells or is otherwise unhelpful. Magic effects used to make progress through hostile environments: Open Lock, Protection from Elements, Teleport, Telekinesis, Dispel Magic Field, Invisibility/Disguise (to avoid guards, alive or dead), Freeze Area (ice bridge), Reveal Secret Doors, Stone to Flesh (to survive a basilisk encounter – or to free someone who was turned to stone by a basilisk long ago), Create Cloud Bridge. All of these force players to examine their options and use all available tricks to open up paths where none seemed to exist.


Teleport Confusion

A crossover between the Invisible Path and Use This Here. The standard setup is having the player teleport around numerous identical chambers; only by finding a way to keep these chambers apart – maybe by dropping loot – and carefully noting which teleport leads to which chamber can the player progress.

It is more interesting if the player has a say in the destination. The teleport target might be determined by either a set of dials or by placing items in nearby receptacles. The player then can only explore parts of the map and must deduct the correct settings or items to use (use a ruby to get behind the red door) so the teleports will allow access to the rest.

Step by Step

Each puzzle can be made harder by giving more weight to the parts it is made of, or by making those parts only accessible through minor puzzles themselves. Usually, the triggers are linked to exactly one object (i.e. lever opens door), activate it once triggered, and that’s it. To make it more challenging, connect the triggers to several objects so they will activate some and deactivate others. Then place some of the triggers so they can only be accessed by using some of the spell effects detailed above and you have a puzzle complex that can easily fill a whole map and keep the player busy for quite a while.


  • A number of portcullises in a corridor must be opened.
  • They are operated by a number of pressure plates in a central room at the beginning of the corridor; these pressure plates will revert back if not pressed down by weight, undoing their activation effects (i.e. the respective portcullises close again).
  • Random inventory items won’t do it, so there must be some large weights around. Closer inspection of the central room reveals numerous secret doors.
  • These secret doors lead to small areas where the necessary weight blocks are hidden. Some of them are guarded by fearsome monsters, some hidden behind magic fields that must be counteracted. One is stored in an area that’s actually pretty large, spreading out to a lower level where a lift must be activated to transport the missing weight block onto the level where it’s needed.
  • Once all the blocks are assembled, there’s still the question which of the pressure plates have to be covered so all three portcullises remain open.

An extensive collection of puzzles as this would be right at home in RPGs of the Dungeon Master heritage, like Legend of Grimrock. But it could also find a home in other games as an optional challenge, maybe a test imposed by the Brotherhood of Knowledge.


“What crawls on four legs in the morning, goes on two legs at noon, and uses three legs in the evening?”

Arguably the most famous riddle. Chances are high that your players will know the answer – but wait, what exactly is it? “Human”; “Man”; “a human”; “a man”; “humans”? You did include all those alternatives in the code, didn’t you?

That’s just why I don’t like this kind of riddles. The previous puzzles were all based on rules of logic, your command of the English language didn’t matter. With riddles, it’s often more about intuition, your ability not only to understand the riddlemaster’s thoughts, but also to express them in the desired way. This becomes even more sketchy if you think about non-native speakers. In the Might & Magic games, random NPCs tell the exact solutions to the various riddles as a fallback, but doesn’t this sort of defeat the purpose? I’ll stick to logical reasoning, thank you very much.

There may be an exception to this, and that is if we are not talking about a specific word as a specific solution, but about a concept as a hint. For instance, a gargoyle might give a clue about shadows, darkness or something similar; it doesn’t demand an answer, but with this clue it becomes much easier to solve the Invisible Path maze in the room behind (always take the darkest path possible).

So much for a short ride through puzzle types. I’ll periodically update this if other puzzles cross my mind. If you have any further ideas, or any questions or remarks, let me know in the comments!

Happy Crafting.

Categories: Allgemein

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