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.
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.