Riddles are a classic element of adventures and fantasy works. From cryptic clues left by an old wizard in one of their books for no-one other than themselves, to elaborate death traps created by malicious gods, it comes up sooner or later. However, tabletop gaming is different than a fantasy movie or book. The game needs to keep moving. Your players can’t spend a week straight on a riddle like a character can. So to prevent a game from stalling, there are a few techniques I’ve seen used, and I hope to share them today.
Roll For Success
Sometimes you can just let a character roll for a solution. They meet the DC, they get the result. I’m generally not a fan of this solution because it makes the riddle just another roll. That said, it’s a trick to keep in your back pocket if everything else fails.
Often time is important for a quest. One thing you can do is allow players to trade in-game time for hints. If you present it to the party, and they can’t figure it out, they can spend time researching the book, or looking over the area, and as a result they get a hint that makes the answer easier to figure out.
Find An Alternate Solution
There are often alternate solutions to a problem. Can’t figure out the puzzle on a tomb door? A scroll of fireball could do the trick. One moment that stands out from my games is where the party, including myself since I was a player, decided the best course of action was to buy 500 gold worth of alchemists fire, and burn their way through. It worked though we had to wait an extra couple hours for the smoke to clear.
These solutions are often non-ideal and come with a cost. The alchemist's fire cost money. It also cost us time since we had to go back to the city, and back to the tomb. They might petition their deity for help, or talk to a nearby corpse using good old necromancy (speak with dead is a good way to get another riddle). These are slightly different since they will end up using the ideal solution in the end. However, they are taking some extra steps because they couldn’t figure it out themselves. Hiring a local wizard for consultation is another variant of this.
Failure Is Not The End
They got the combination on the chest wrong? It explodes, sending pieces of wood throughout the room. I lost 12 hit points, and the potion inside was destroyed, but now it’s open! A failure to a riddle doesn’t need to block the progress of the party. That said, there should be a cost. In this style, failure will open a new path for the players, but it’s less than ideal.
One particularly interesting example I saw was that another group of adventurers got into the tomb and solved the riddle. They are still there, and they’re not friendly. And one of them fell to their death with some of the loot, making it unreachable.
Any of the above can be combined. You can allow a roll (DC 16 arcana check to realize it’s an arcane lock spell, but they need to realize its magical), alternate solutions (using detect magic would reveal magic is a foot, dispel magic would remove the obstacle, they could still break down the door even with the DC 10 addition from arcane lock), or they can do it as expected and solve the riddle in the wizard’s book they found on his body. Now, I wouldn’t use this as a puzzle outside of low level without some changes, but it’s already sounding better than having them stuck.
I’ve played and ran many a session where the players come up with a more interesting solution to a riddle than the Dungeon Master (or author of the published adventure). And you know what I did? I made it the solution. It worked based on everything that was provided, and it was even better. Why not reward cleverness? That said, you have to be a little careful not to have every riddle end up this way. Some of your riddles should be solvable.
Sometimes even seemingly easy riddles can be hard for people that aren’t in your frame of mind. There’s nothing wrong with having a few easy ones too. Makes players feel smart, and the game go at a good pace. Besides, didn’t they earn it by retrieving that wizard’s journal from those bandits? Generally, the more leaps of logic that need to be done, the less likely that it’ll be solved. That said, it’s very hard writing good riddles and puzzles. It also depends on your group.
Don’t Be Afraid To Reuse
We’ve had years of tabletop RPGs and video games, and more books than can be read in a life time. Don’t be afraid to reuse a cool riddle you find, especially from more obscure sources. Also, remember what’s considered obscure depends on your players. Also, don’t be afraid of putting a slight twist on the puzzle. Instead of answering the riddle of the sphinx, maybe they need to arrange 3 idols in three areas. One has a sunrise design, one has a sunset design, and one has a high noon design. Same problem, slightly different delivery.