In a previous post, I mentioned liking puzzles in my role-playing game. Sometimes, though, throwing a quick puzzle into combat- or social-based dungeon isn’t satisfying enough… Or worse, comes off as forced or cliched. So sometimes, instead of putting puzzles in a dungeon, I like puzzles that are the dungeon.
Rather than plopping a puzzle in the middle of a dungeon crawl, consider making the dungeon itself run as a puzzle. In each room or area, you can have your combat encounters or social encounters or what not, but the overall dungeon can be a puzzle, too. This can be done with how players travel through the dungeon, reoccurring challenges throughout the adventure, or making the whole adventure take place in a location or setting outside what players take for typical.
The advantage of this kind of large scale puzzle is simple: it’s different. It’s a change from the riddle-doors and puzzle-chests that could otherwise become common sights in dungeon. They make for a memorable dungeon, filled with unique puzzle challenges.
Of course, this kind of idea can backfire, too. If your players don’t enjoy the puzzle that you design your dungeon around, then they have a long, long time to slog through it. Worse still, if they can’t figure it out, the entire dungeon becomes nothing but one frustrating stumbling block after another. So, perhaps more so than with stand-alone puzzles, you need to ensure large scale puzzles aren’t too hard or abstract, or you need to give the players an out if they get stuck.
That’s all well and good for the idea of a large-scale puzzle, but what about the details? What do I mean, really? Well, here’s some examples of large scale puzzles in dungeons and adventures.
The Sliding Dungeon: This dungeons is composed of a number of square rooms, each identical in size. In certain rooms, there are controls that give a bird’s eye view of the dungeon layout. The dungeon controls work like those 3×3 (or bigger, if you want more of a challenge) sliding puzzles, where pieces are moved into blank spaces without any being lifted or turned. Doors only open when lined up with other doors, rooms that are inaccessible can become accessible by moving them, etc. If the players want to explore every room (or get to a specific one), they need to figure out how to arrange the puzzle to make a path.
The Spinning Dungeon: This is similar to the sliding dungeon, only rather than square rooms, the dungeon is built on concentric rings. Again, by accessing controls, the players can rearrange the dungeon, this time by spinning the rings to line up passages or change the layout of rooms.
The Living Dungeon: Remember the time you had to go into Jabu-Jabu’s belly in Legend of Zelda? (And if you don’t know Ocarina of Time, I’m sorry you had such a sad childhood.) Anyways, this is like that. Whether it’s in the belly of some massive beast, or in a building with living walls of eldritch horror, having the dungeon be a living entity (whether good, evil, or benign) can open up some unique hurdles players have to overcome, and perhaps even more interesting (or unexpected) solutions. What happens if you attack living walls? Or make the creature sneeze or swallow when you’re stuck at an impassable sphincter? (Any circular muscle is a sphincter, get your mind out of the gutter.) Once the players figure out some of their options that living dungeons allow, they can tackle obstacles in ways that they never could in a standard one.
Two-Worlds: Imagine a dungeon that exists in two (or more) states: this could be past and future, for instance, or different planes of existences. If the players have a way of traversing these two states, then obstacles can be encountered that can only be overcome in one of the multiple states. Impassable door in the past? Jump to the future, where it has rusted and rotted to the point of falling down. Ancient dragon guarding the treasure in the future? Hop to the past, where it’s a mere baby. I once ran a dungeon that jumped between the real world and the world of dreams; the goals were in the real world, but players could do things in the world of dreams that they couldn’t awake. Bottomless chasm that you have to get across? You can fly in dreams. Tiny doorway? Dream that you’re shrinking. All it takes is some consideration of how you want the mechanics of traveling back and forth between the multiple versions of the dungeon to work.
Portable Doors: What happens if you put a portable hole on a wall? Or the ceiling? Ok, so if you are following the rules, probably nothing interesting. But that’s boring, so make up your own portable hole. Think of all the fun that could be had with a door frame that creates a passage wherever it’s placed, or a hole that can be used to climb between floors and then moved. This kind of trick needs a bit more planning, I think (so the players don’t just carve themselves a path straight through whatever they’re going through), but with a few mechanical limitations to the tool, it could make for a unique type of exploration.
Those are just 5 examples of large scale puzzles or reoccurring challenges that you can shape a dungeon around. Can you think of more? Share some of your own ideas in the comments, or let me know what you think about using large scale puzzles to change up your adventures.