Thursday, May 18, 2023

Building Better Puzzles for "Lair of the Lamb"

Pink fish with hand-like appendages

(Spoilers ahead for "Lair of the Lamb" by Arnold K. You should check it out if you haven’t already. It’s free on Goblin Punch and has become one of my favorite adventures.)

In the adventure "Lair of the Lamb," there is a tumbler puzzle. It’s basically a combination lock where players spin disks to display the correct numbers to open a door. Wrong combinations cause wandering encounter checks via loud grinding machinery behind the scenes and a refreshing bath of milky, flesh-sizzling acid.

The only clues to the correct combination come from another room with a fountain where water drips in a pattern (drip, drip-drip, drip, drip-drip). There’s a statue in the fountain room which depicts the same creature as the statue in the tumbler puzzle room—a fish with hands. The statue serves as a hint to search for a numerical combination somewhere here.

This is not an OSR-style challenge, therefore it is not an OSR-style puzzle. There is no challenge for players to assess and execute a plan. There is only hidden information.

Master lock combination lock

This puzzle relies heavily on players making several sequential leaps in logic.

    1    The tumblers and door form a combination lock that can be opened.
    2    The fish statue in the fountain room is a signal to look for a numerical combination for the tumblers in the puzzle room.
    3    The dripping noise in the fountain room is the combination to the tumbler puzzle.

Some of these conclusions might seem obvious when I put them in a list, but they are actually quite difficult to come by naturally in a typical TTRPG session. The referee needs to be on-point with their descriptions and driving home the clues. Players need to remember a lot while also making non-obvious connections. Kind of a lot to ask in “Lair of the Lamb” which is a teaching adventure intended for beginner old-school referees and players.

The good news is that this puzzle is optional. The tumbler puzzle room (and the throne room beyond it) can be removed completely without affecting the adventure at all. But you don’t have to get rid of all of it. With a few small tweaks, we can turn this into a satisfying challenge and enhance the overall puzzle experience for players and referees.

The first step in improving the puzzle is to establish a theme that reinforces the logical connection behind it. Instead of relying on a combination lock with one solution, we can draw inspiration from the existing elements in the adventure. In this case, we have fish statues and water. Moreover, the adventure begins with the party waking up in a dungeon as sacrifices, lacking any inventory (or pockets) to solve their first challenge: finding water. This setting provides an opportunity to incorporate water and dehydration as the central theme for the puzzle.

Statue of a fish pointed upward

To integrate the water theme, let's re-imagine the fish with hands in the fountain room. Instead of merely being present, the fish statues can be depicted guzzling water from a stream above. Now let's put that same statue in the puzzle room without the stream of water making sure we describe its mouth turned upright, as if it is expecting something to be placed inside—specifically, water. To further reinforce the connection, murals on the walls can depict peasants in supplication to a fishy god, with streams of water raining down into their unworthy landlubber mouths. This visual representation will emphasize what is absent from the puzzle room: water.

Hands holding an empty bowl

Players still need to drink water from the fountain room, and upon encountering the identical fish statue in the puzzle room, they will have a reason to return for more. The actual challenge lies in how they will transport the water from the fountain to the puzzle room. As written, the adventure provides a few containers for liquids, such as wine bottles and a bowl. Without backpacks or pockets, players need to think about who is carrying what and possibly giving up the chance to defend themselves by carrying water across the den of the lamb. The water and its container serve as a combination “key” for the puzzle room door, but with an emphasis on knowledge acquisition traded for one on planning and execution. Alternatively, players can devise other creative methods to open the door. The fish mouth may accept liquids with a "high" percentage of water, leaving it up to the referee to judge what qualifies as a watery enough liquid—be it sweat, urine, or even spit.

To add an element of risk and consequence, we can even keep the milky acid trap from the puzzle room. If something that is not "watery" enough is placed inside the fish mouth (vinegar, mud, a finger), the statue can react by vomiting up acid and spraying the room. This consequence still serves its original purpose as a deterrent, urging players to think carefully about their actions and the liquid they choose to transport.

With these changes, the players now have a clearer understanding of their multi-step challenge: they need to get water to the fish statue in the puzzle room. However, the solution is not immediately apparent, as they must also consider how to transport the water effectively. This revised puzzle design encourages player engagement and critical thinking while providing a logical progression that enhances immersion within the adventure. It’s an OSR-style puzzle.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Dungeon Crawls in Cinema

Do you love the thrill of exploring dark, winding corridors, fighting off dangerous monsters, and discovering hidden treasures? Odds are you do if you play old school style table top adventure games. In this post, I will be reviewing some of the best dungeon crawl movies out there that give you that same adrenaline rush.

This reddit post on r/osr has some user suggestions for films with dungeon crawls in them. I watched a bunch to separate the wheat from the chaff and find the movies that capture the essence of the dungeon crawl experience. But before we dive into the reviews, let's first define what I mean by "dungeon crawl."

A dungeon crawl is a type of adventure that involves exploring “underworld” environments, such as dungeons, catacombs, or caves. These places don’t need to be underground, per se, they just need to follow different rules than the world of the mundane. Dungeon crawls typically involve battling monsters, solving puzzles, and collecting treasure, but not always. Most importantly, dungeon crawls involve delving into the unknown. and characters that must use their wits to survive against all odds.

I evaluate each movie based on a set of criteria that I personally believe are essential to a successful dungeon crawl: tension, the unknown, craftiness, hopelessness, and overall dungeon crawl vibes. So, buckle up, grab your torches and weapons, and get ready for some thrilling dungeon crawl reviews.

Barbarian (2022)

Legit Dungeon Crawl

Dungeon Crawl Vibes: 5/5

Tension: 5/5

Unknown: 5/5

Crafty: 3/5

Hopelessness: 5/5

Barbarian (2022) provides a genuine dungeon crawl experience for the characters and the audience. Tension ramps and comes to a head multiple times without excessive jump scares. It is true horror of the unknown. It’s pretty much perfect.

Despite the film’s title, there is no shirtless, buff, sword-wielding character in this film. The protagonist is not a superhero. She’s an ordinary person who is put in a shitty situation and the audience gets to find out what kind of person she is at the same time she does. The main character is faced with difficult choices multiple times. She shows true bravery in the face of danger.

The overall feeling of dread and helplessness experienced throughout the film is palpable. While the dungeon crawl portions only last for about 20 minutes of the movie, they are terrifying and definitely worth the experience.

The transition between the mundane world and the underworld is masterfully done. There are many things that aren’t quite right and they are showcased throughout the film when the protagonist travels between destinations. Things get awkward moving from the relatively safe city, to the shadiest neighborhood around. And the discoveries in the dark under her airbnb get weirder and weirder the deeper we go. The transitions are reminiscent of what Bryce Lynch's speaks of in his adventure reviews, which is high praise in the world of dungeon crawl enthusiasts.

Overall, Barbarian (2022) is a must-watch for those who enjoy the dungeon crawls and appreciate the craft of creating a truly terrifying experience. 10/10 scary points. Would not watch alone again.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Not worth the 3 minutes of dungeon crawling.

Dungeon Crawl Vibes: 2/5

Tension: 0/5

Unknown: 1/5

Crafty: 1/5

Hopelessness: 1/5

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is an action-comedy movie that incorporates elements of fantasy and martial arts. Although it does have a few scenes that somewhat resemble a dungeon crawl, the movie as a whole does not capture the true essence of the genre.

The movie follows a truck driver named Jack Burton (played by Kurt Russell) who gets caught up in a battle between a group of Chinese sorcerers and a gang of underworld thugs. The story takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown and features elements of Chinese mythology and folklore.

The movie has some scenes that take place in underground lairs and temples but they do not have the same level of tension, uncertainty, or danger that is associated with a true dungeon crawl. The action sequences are more focused on the fighting and martial arts aspect rather than the exploration and discovery that is central to a dungeon crawl.

Additionally, the characters are not faced with the same level of hopelessness and desperation that is present in a classic dungeon crawl adventure. The stakes don’t feel high, victories feel unearned, and the characters never seem to be in real danger.

However, despite not being a true dungeon crawl movie, Big Trouble in Little China does have its own unique charm and style. It has a strong cult following, and it has inspired many other works of fantasy and martial arts.

I now have inspiration for a new beholder-like monster in my games.

Looks like a pretty chill dude.

Dredd (2012)

Fun, but no teeth.

Dungeon Crawl Vibes: 1/5

Tension: 1/5

Unknown: 1/5

Crafty: 2/5

Hopelessness: 1/5

Dredd (2012) is an action-packed science fiction movie that, while an enjoyable experience, does not have the typical dungeon crawl vibes. The movie centers around Judge Dredd, a tough law enforcement officer who patrols the streets of Mega-City One, a sprawling metropolis in a post-apocalyptic world. When Dredd and a rookie partner are trapped in a high-rise building controlled by a ruthless drug lord, they must fight their way to the top to bring them to justice.

Although the movie has some elements of a dungeon crawl, such as the confined setting of the high-rise building and the numerous enemies that the characters must fight through to reach their goal, it lacks the sense of unknown, tension, and uncertainty that is present in a dungeon crawl. The characters in the movie are very skilled and experienced, and it is clear from the outset that they are capable of handling anything that comes their way. There is never any doubt that they will be successful in their mission.

The movie does have some moments of craftiness, particularly in the way that the characters use their weapons and gadgets to overcome obstacles and outmaneuver their enemies. However, this is not enough to truly give it a strong dungeon crawl vibe.

Overall, while Dredd is an entertaining and action-packed movie that has its moments of excitement and tension, it does not fully capture the spirit of a true dungeon crawl. Fans of science fiction and action movies will likely enjoy it, but those looking for a dungeon crawl may be left wanting more.

Your Highness (2011)

Beers and pretzels, but no tension.

Dungeon Crawl Vibes: 2/5
Tension: 1/5
Unknown: 3/5
Crafty: 2/5
Hopelessness: 1/5

Your Highness (2011) is a stoner comedy that takes place in a fantasy world with knights, wizards, and mythical creatures. The film follows two brothers, Thadeous and Fabious, on a quest to rescue Fabious's bride-to-be from an evil wizard.

While the film does have some dungeon crawl elements, it’s much more reminiscent of a “beer and pretzels” DnD game with a bunch of knuckleheads messing around. The tone and characters feel out of place in a dungeon crawl setting.

The film's lighthearted tone and comedic approach to the quest make it clear that the characters will ultimately succeed and come out on top. There’s not really any hopelessness.

Overall, Your Highness may provide some entertaining moments, but it falls short as a true dungeon crawl experience.

The Descent (2007)

A terrifying, claustrophobic cave crawl

Dungeon Crawl Vibes: 5/5

Tension: 5/5

Unknown: 5/5

Crafty: 3/5

Hopelessness: 5/5

Watching The Descent (2007) is like watching a group of adventurers descending into a dark, dangerous dungeon. The cave system is both the setting and the main antagonist of the movie, and it delivers on all the terrifying aspects of a dungeon crawl. Claustrophobic spaces, unknown dangers, and the sense of hopelessness all contribute to an intense and suspenseful experience.

The creatures that inhabit the cave system are unique and terrifying and make for some memorable encounters. The main characters are at a significant disadvantage but do manage to figure out ways to get a leg up at times. There’s no exit in sight and only the itsy bitsy-ist glimmer of hope (which is probably just phosphorus).

There are a few too many jump scares in the movie for my taste. I think there are more satisfying ways to relieve tension in horror movies. But overall, The Descent is a must-watch for fans of dungeon crawls and horror movies. It's a well-crafted and intense experience that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

The Goonies (1985)

An exceptional dungeon crawl in the guise of a children’s movie

Dungeon Crawl Vibes: 4/5

Tension: 4/5

Unknown: 4/5

Crafty: 5/5

Hopelessness: 3/5

The Goonies (1985) is a classic adventure movie that captures the essence of a dungeon crawl. The movie follows a group of young misfits, the Goonies, as they set out on a quest to find the treasure of the legendary pirate One-Eyed Willy. Along the way, they face numerous obstacles and challenges, from booby traps and puzzles to dangerous villains and treacherous underground tunnels.

The movie creates a sense of tension and uncertainty throughout, as the characters are never sure what challenges they will face next or whether they will be able to overcome them. The setting is a labyrinthine series of underground tunnels and caves, adding to the sense of unknown and danger.

The characters in the movie are also very crafty, using their wits and ingenuity (and many gadgets) to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. They work together as a team, each contributing their own unique skills and talents to the adventure.

Although the stakes may not immediately feel as high as in some other dungeon crawl movies, the characters do face significant moments of fear, hopelessness, and despair. The clock is ticking as the protagonists either press forward or face the danger at their heels.

Overall, The Goonies is a classic dungeon crawl movie that is both entertaining and exciting. It has become a beloved classic, inspiring numerous imitators and setting a standard for adventure movies for years to come.

The dungeon is even Jaquaysed.


There you have it, folks. Whether you're in the mood for horror, comedy, adventure, or sci-fi, there's a dungeon crawl movie out there for you. So grab some popcorn, gather your party, and get ready to explore the depths of cinematic dungeons.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Designing OSR-style puzzles

The sphinx blocks your path. She speaks in a calm, booming voice that echoes through the dungeon.*

“Altar of the Lupine Lords.
Round she is, yet flat as a board
Altar of the Lupine Lords.
Jewel on black velvet, pearl in the sea
Unchanged but ere changing, eternally.”
Answer: Let’s play something else.

*This riddle is the first thing most critics of puzzles in TTRPGs think of. It's from White Plume Mountain.

Venn diagram of OSR-Style Challenges and Puzzles. The intersection is OSR-Style Puzzles.

Not all OSR-style challenges are puzzles and not all puzzles are OSR-style challenges. But the puzzles I like are OSR-style puzzles.

I've talked about running puzzles well, but I've yet to talk about how to make good puzzles. Puzzles in TTRPG games have historically been so bad that I've probably already lost readers with the title of this post. Some people dismiss puzzles as a waste of time. That’s a shame, because in my own humble opinion, puzzles can be just as engaging and even more rewarding than the “OSR-style challenges” that referees already present to players. Puzzles are a lot harder to do well, but they are worth it.

First though…

What are OSR style challenges? 

Antique Animal Illustration Of Crocodile In The Public Domain. From the vintage natural history book Bilder-Atlas zur wissenschaftlich-populären Naturgeschichte der Wirbelthiere by Fitzinger, Leopold Joseph.
"Crocodile" From Bilder-Atlas zur wissenschaftlich-populären Naturgeschichte der Wirbelthiere by Fitzinger, Leopold Joseph

Arnold K from Goblin Punch says they are obstacles that meet the following requirements:
  1.     No obvious solution.  (Straight combat is always obvious.)
  2.     Many possible solutions.
  3.     Solvable via common sense (as opposed to system mastery).
  4.     No special tools required (no unique spells, no plot McGuffins at the bottom of a dungeon).
  5.     Not solvable by a specific class or ability.

One example from the blog post that sticks in my mind is:
    58. Cross a moat filled with crocodiles.

So now…

What’s a puzzle? 

A massive wheel surrounded by runes set into the floor. A door and an open archway are in the far corners of the room.
"The Hub (Mundane)" from Aberrant Reflections - Art by Del Teigler


Let’s tweak the Oxford Languages definition a bit and define a “puzzle” as “a problem designed to test ingenuity or knowledge.

Whose ingenuity or knowledge?

When talking about TTRPGs we usually mean the player. Some would argue that the player’s character should be the one who is being tested and they should get to roll dice to determine success. To those people, I’d say they were missing the point of puzzles in adventure games, or the point of this blog post at least.

So for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say that a “puzzle” is "a problem designed to test ingenuity or knowledge of a player who is roleplaying one or more characters in a fictional space". Or… just “player” because I don’t want to write all that.

This is still a very broad definition, but it helps eliminate some quick cases right away.

A locked door and a 1st level adventuring party.

This is NOT an OSR-style challenge and it is NOT a puzzle.

The party could pick the lock, they could force or break the door, or they could open the lock with a key. These are standard solutions that don’t require a lot of thought. Would you laud a player’s decision to force down the door as ingenious? Probably not.

Let’s do better.

A locked IRON door and a 1st level adventuring party. AND it’s common knowledge there’s a Troll around here with a rusty key dangling around their neck.

This IS an OSR-style challenge, but is it a puzzle?

There are many ways to obtain the key (or not) and open the door, and none of them are particularly straightforward. Are there ingenious ways to obtain this key? I think so. The PCs can trick the Troll or do favors for the Troll or wage a faction war against the Troll, etc. Opening the door with the key is the straightforward part. Or the PCs can just ignore all of that and make their own door with time, sweat, and tears.

While this challenge seems like it fits our definition of “puzzle” in that it is designed to test ingenuity, it doesn’t feel particularly “puzzle-like”. There’s planning and cleverness, but there’s no “eureka effect” or “aha! moment”.

The "eureka effect", or “aha! moment”, according to Wikipedia, is “The common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.

Let’s tweak our definition again. A puzzle is "a test of a player's ingenuity and designed to invoke the experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept."

Let’s make a PUZZLE now.

A locked iron door and a 1st level adventuring party. AND a massive iron bell hangs from the ceiling. FLECKS OF PURPLE SLUDGE blemish the rock walls.

PCs ring the bell. It’s deafeningly, ear-bleedingly loud.

No, thank you!”, exclaim the PCs, afraid the noise will draw some horrible thing to them. “Tra la la.

Two rooms later, purple oozes block the path forward. There’s shiny key hanging on a hook way out of reach. It’d be easy to get if it weren't for these darned purple people eaters. The "Molotov lamp oil" strategy is no good. The PCs have only made the oozes angry. These oozes eat fire for breakfast, with a side of blood sausage. The fighter’s armor is disintegrated. The elf has lost their arm. The PCs retreat.

In another room, the purple oozes are absent. Their gooey trails stop and veer off from here. There's a house-sized nest here with some big honkin’ eggs and some shiny treasures. Also, there's a horse-sized, screeching goat-bird with razor talons. The screech upends the PCs and makes their ears bleed.

Damn. Did we just design a puzzle dungeon? Almost.

At this point, there's a bunch of information about the mechanics of the dungeon available to PCs who experiment and interact with their environment. Score.

The PCs might get that eureka effect when they see flecks of purple sludge around the lair of the goat screecher.

Eventually we want them to realize that sound is the purple ooze’s weakness. Ringing the bell or the screech of certain creatures will cause the ooze to become paralyzed and start flipping out while pulsing flecks of purple sludge.

The flecks of purple sludge provide re-contextualization for the players. If we’ve been doing our job right, we’ve been painstakingly pointing it out for the players reminding them it’s there. And when players ask, we tell them when the flecks are NOT there. We want these areas to stick in the player’s minds and seed that aha! moment.

This is pretty good. Lower case “good”.


Wiki commons public domain. Unknown artist.

  1. Clear end-goal. Get the key to open the door.
  2. Clear challenge with no obvious solution. Get past the purple oozes.
  3. Multiple solutions. Kite the oozes away, lug that big-ass bell around and ring it in front of the oozes, kite the goat screecher to the purple oozes.
  4. Solvable via common sense and not special tools. While the massive bell could be considered a special tool, it’s not required to solve the puzzle. In fact, it’s still a pain in the butt to lug around. I wouldn’t call it a “plot McGuffin”.
  5. No fancy spell or class ability that’s required to solve the puzzle. 
  6. Seeding in those Aha! moments. We've got a bit of re-contextualization with the purple flecks, but it's easily missed. We probably need some more.

I say this is pretty good because it depends on the PCs making a pretty big leap in logic. With these kind of puzzles, while there’s no requirement of system mastery, there is a requirement of mechanics mastery.

It’s much less of a jump in logic, if we incrementally teach the players the mechanics of the world.

This dungeon reacts to sound. That’s its theme. Let’s dig into a bit more.

I want a cool item to find, ala The Legend of Zelda. The bell is fine, but it’s heavy and bulky. The PCs should be given the option to upgrade given a challenge. How about we throw “Moonfen’s magic tuning fork” in the goat screecher nest? Get it stuck in the PCs' craw and don’t hide the fact that it’s there. It’s another possible aha! moment later when they realize that the theme is sound. The tuning fork is not required, it’s just nice to have and a good reward for ingenuity.

We need more things that react to sound. Let’s sprinkle in some thick crystal that’s painstakingly slow to break with tools, but shatters like the T-1000 when the high pitched sounds start. Actually, let’s make it purple crystal. It’s the crusty hardened shell of purple ooze mucus. And let’s get this crap aaaaaaaaall over some shiny treasure. We’re going to block archways with it and cover acid melted, mummified corpses with it. This stuff is gonna be all over the place and block some cool things that PCs want. We’re also going to put some bits of broken purple crystal interwoven in the goat screecher nest. It’s gotta make due with whatever supplies it has, and there will be a lot of this broken stuff wherever it screeches.

Not everything has to be related to the theme. In fact, it’s better to have some stuff that’s not. PCs relying on the bell too much? Let’s get some rust monsters in here. The bell was previously inaccessible to them because it was tied high to the ceiling, but now that the PCs have been carrying it around, the scent of that sweet sweet iron is permeating through the dungeon and whetting the ole’ rust monster whistle.

Oh, hang on. Now I want a whistle. The sound can't be heard by human ears. Maybe elf ears… but definitely heard by the goat screecher. Heard from anywhere in the dungeon. And the goat screecher doesn’t like it one bit.

If you’re feeling especially bold, throw in something that subverts the PCs expectations. Lets put in a room with doors that react to sound, but not in a way the PCs have seen before. They need to be QUIET to open these doors. I’m talking, putting-out-noisy-burning-torches quiet. Drop ample hints and keep it optional. You’re players might get another aha! moment out of it.

Now this is an uppercase “GOOD” puzzle. It’s a puzzle dungeon! 

 "The Hub (Aberrant)" from Aberrant Reflections - Art by Del Teigler 
  1. Teaches the mechanics of the world. The PC’s have ample opportunity AND motivation to learn the mechanics of the dungeon. The referee has lots of options for further puzzles that build on each other. Smaller challenges that feed into bigger and more complex ones that rely on planning.
  2. Seeding those Aha! moments with THEME. This puppy is screaming “SOUND!” at the PCs. We've got plenty for them to experiment and interact with and some bait for them to think about how to get. Perfect environment for the eureka effect.

Can we make it a GREAT puzzle?

Yes, but… this is the toughest pill to swallow and I’ve saved it until the very end when I’ve (hopefully) got you all excited about making OSR-Style puzzles. The hardest part about making puzzles fun and exciting has to do with the fact that you are designing them purely in the theoretical. You won’t know if a puzzle is going to land until you run it. You need to test it out and be willing to change things that don’t work and add more to make the experience smoother.

An obvious blocker here is if you’re only playing with one group. You can’t get the eureka effect yourself and you can’t get the same group of players to experience the same eureka effect twice.

So start small, play with lots of people, build, tweak, change, obsess. Or not. You’ll still have a GOOD puzzle. Which is good! I can’t stress enough how much better your puzzles will be than 90% of the published material out there. Don’t be afraid to unleash your hard work for your players. Be upfront about what it is and why you’re excited about it, but make it optional. You’re players don’t need to engage with or solve your puzzles. Allow them to break your puzzles as this is the BEST way to improve them. You can do this. Really!

Further reading... or viewing, rather.


"Collapsed Hallway" from Aberrant Reflections - Art by Jacob Fleming

Now we are getting into advanced territory and puzzle theory. There are systematic ways to structure puzzle dungeons through teachable loops and category buckets for puzzles.

If you want me to write more on these techniques, I can. Leave a comment. Or you could just listen to people much wiser than me about the topic.

Game Master's Tool Kit on youtube has a series of videos breaking down why The Legend of Zelda's puzzle dungeons are so good. They talk about how they are constructed and why they work. 

There's also a great video about what makes puzzles good in general.

I was also made aware while writing this blog post that this guide exists, written by Sersa Victory. It does a great job visually explaining classic puzzle loops while focusing on TTRPG play.

Are there adventure modules already like this out there?

If you want some puzzle dungeons to read or run, I've published a couple. Aberrant Reflections and The Seers Sanctum.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't give recognition for one of the best puzzle dungeons in the scene. Fabien's Atelier. It's one of the adventures in Wyvern Songs, by Brad Kerr.

Now for my hopes and dreams.


"Ubelfallen" from Aberrant Reflections - art by Jacob Fleming

I hope I’ve changed the minds of some of the more stalwart players and refs that are opposed to puzzles in their games entirely. And I hope that this post is able to act as a bit of a meandering guide for referees creating their own puzzles. And at the very least, I hope this post encourages at least one referee to think twice before including an impassable block at the beginning of a dungeon that disappears after the PCs answer a tonally dissonant riddle with the words: “the moon”.

If you prescribe to these notions or if I've made a believer out of you, leave a comment or something. Tell me your favorite puzzle. If you still think puzzles suck, leave a comment or something. Tell me what you hate and I'll try to change your mind again.

P.S. I don't hate white plume mountain. That module is awesome. There are some amazing challenges right next to some pretty bad ones.

Monday, February 7, 2022

So you want to run a Puzzle Dungeon: Tips and procedures for pleasant puzzling

I had a chance to run my puzzle dungeon, Aberrant Reflections, for Plus One Exp. It was a blast. I’ll be referencing timestamps from footage of the game so you can watch the parts mentioned. Skip to 2:46:27 for a game retrospective and design discussion. Disclaimer: Things don’t go down in the video exactly as I describe in the text. Just roll with it. 

Navigation by mirror shard - art by Jacob Fleming
Navigation by mirror shard (Aberrant Reflections) - art by Jacob Fleming

What is a Puzzle Dungeon?

Mark Brown, of Game Master’s Toolkit, has an excellent series breaking down what Zelda’s puzzle box dungeons are. They are worth a watch, but I will paraphrase here. 

A puzzle dungeon is a polished experience akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube from the inside. The dungeons aren’t just a container for puzzles, but the container itself is a puzzle. Completing these dungeons requires a mix of spatial reasoning and navigation in a complex three-dimensional setting.

This last bit should sound familiar. Getting the players to reason about the environment around them is a staple of good dungeon design. It may not be called out by name in the Alexandrian’s “Jaquaying the Dungeon” articles, but this is exactly what Caverns of Thracia encourages with its famously interconnected levels.

Puzzle dungeons have a lot going on: 

  • Recontextualization of previously visited areas

  • Subsections with their own theme and story

  • Key items and power-ups

  • Incremental teaching of new mechanics

So how do you ensure the same polished, video game, puzzle dungeon experience at the table top?

Don’t overload the players


“You come upon a circular room with stone coffins. In the center of the room, is a stone slab about 3 feet high. Hovering above the slab is a key.

Here is a few sentences long description about the major features of the room. The players can make decisions about what they’d like to investigate and interact with. They might ask about the coffins. You’d tell them how the coffin lids have all been removed and broken bones lay about them. The important bit is at the end here. Further investigation reveals that these bones have been gnawed on by something that might still be around.

The players might ask about the floating key and you’d tell them how it is purple and looks to be made of wrought-iron and floats motionless

The important bit is at the end here, since it will soon be apparent that the key isn’t exactly floating on its own.

  • Describe the things that would be immediately apparent to the player characters.

  • Let the PCs investigate each thing and then you can get into more detail. 

  • Keep the important stuff at the end.

Reiterate the important things

You are the player’s eyes and ears and every other sense. The referee has perfect knowledge of the dungeon, but the players do not. The worst thing that could happen in a puzzle dungeon is for the players to not have the information that should be apparent to their characters. This dungeon type will challenge your players more than their characters. You don’t want them making decisions based on mistranslations from the referee.

Things can move fast in a game and players might not hear a description or they might forget it. They may have missed something important that they would have otherwise interacted with. So describe it again. 


Thrag, the acolyte, decides to circle the room and get a better look at the coffins. 

“You move from coffin to coffin. All of them are open and see treasures within: rings and necklaces and things that glitter. All the while, the floating key remains motionless in the center of the room, glittering in your torchlight.”

Here I’ve told the player what they see and reiterated the important bits of the area at the very end to keep them in the players’ minds.

Don’t worry about being obvious. Don’t worry about giving away secrets. Information is more important. It is very hard to spoil puzzles for players by describing things their characters would notice.

  • Don’t withhold information.

  • Repeat important bits.

  • Keep the important stuff at the end.

“You trip over the important thing”


Player: “Nothing here. We leave the room.”

Referee: “You trip over something you can’t see on the floor”

Despite your best efforts, the players are going to miss things. In this case, the players were about to leave the room without interacting with an important key item. They knew the item was there, but they disregarded it. They made the false assumption that they wouldn’t be able to touch or interact with the item, so didn’t try to.

I could have let the players leave the room and wander the rest of the dungeon until they maybe came back to this room. But why would they? They had already convinced themselves that there was nothing of interest here and my hints to the contrary weren’t landing.

Leaving the players frustrated and wandering wasn’t going to be a good time for anyone and there was no reason for it. The players had previously described their characters searching the room. It’s logical that they would have bumped into this key item eventually. I just hadn’t described that as happening. So they bumped into the important thing on the way out.

  • Don’t punish the players for missing something that would be obvious to their characters.

Draw it out for the players

Don’t feel like you need to find the right words to explain everything perfectly. In puzzle dungeons there can be some complex areas with many features. Make full use of illustrations and handouts. A picture works wonders. Or just draw stick figures and boxes so you can point to stuff. Information is vital.

  • Show your players what they can interact with through handouts and drawings.

Be open to new ideas


Player: “I try to open the door.”

Referee: “Thrag rushes to the door and pushes, but it doesn’t budge.”

Player: “I pull.”

What sets this analog tabletop puzzle dungeon apart from the video game dungeons of The Legend of Zelda? The players are not limited by the code of the game. They can try anything. Let them. The referee should reward them for understanding their environment and be open to alternate solutions to problems.

  • Let the players break the puzzles instead of solving them.

Let the players fail

Because the players can do anything, they can also render puzzles unsolvable. In The Seers Sanctum, there are glass lenses that are needed to solve the final puzzle. The players might break the lenses. This opens up future quest hooks looking for experts who can repair the key items. The players might gain the attention of a rival adventuring party in their search.

The party may never solve the final puzzle. It’s okay to let them fail. Leave it on a high note and move on to other adventures. Players will be racking their brains about what they may have missed. They may ask you, the referee, what they could have done differently. Resist the urge to tell them and this won’t be the last time they talk about the puzzle dungeon that’s still out there, its secrets guarding treasures untold.

Aberrant Reflections is available on DriveThruRPG and and crowdfunded as part of Zine Month. You can check out and support more indie zine projects at

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