Content of the article: "“Fixing” Tasha’s first puzzle."
- 1 Using the Puzzle Principles
- 1.1 Objects Suggest Mechanics
- 1.2 Use Handouts
- 1.3 Give Feedback
- 1.4 Introduce Mechanics Slowly
- 1.5 Give Redundant Information
- 2 But Don’t Take My Word For it
- 3 Similar Guides
The current top thread has generated a lot of discussion about Tasha's first puzzle, and puzzles in general. As I just made a video on why puzzles are so hard to pull off in D&D and how to work around that, I thought I'd take a crack at altering the puzzle to be more intuitive and fun while changing as little as possible.
This is not to trash this puzzle. As many people observed in that thread, this would be a very fun puzzle on its own or in an escape room or in a puzzle game. But as I go over in my video, you have to present a puzzle very differently in D&D than in those other situations, because of the unbounded nature of D&D's play. Additionally, as I’ll cover in a moment, critical parts of a good puzzle were intentionally left for a DM to invent – ostensibly so that it would be easier to incorporate into many different campaigns. Which I admire. So let's consider this not a bashing of the puzzle in Tasha's, but an example of how to adapt them into your game for maximum fun.
Lack of a Goal
Before we get started, we have to address that the puzzle doesn't have a clear goal built in. In all fairness to WotC, this was on purpose. The "Significance of 'Owlbear'" section suggests that we're meant to create our own goals for these puzzles as we decide how to incorporate them into our adventure.
The problem is it's very important for PCs to know what their goal is in any given puzzle! Otherwise, how on earth are they going to have any indication of what they should be working toward? Or even that they should be working toward something? At the very least, the PCs need to know that the goal of this puzzle is to assemble/retrieve a password of some kind.
For our adaptation, let's say the PCs have found a kind of cryptex-like device off the body of a zhentarim agent. But instead of rings of letters, the cryptex has 7 small indentations and keyholes. These indentations need to be filled with like small scrabble-like tiles with keys on the back of them. These tiles will spell out "OWLBEAR,” and tiles will come from our puzzle, which I’ve decided will be at the opening of a famous waterdhavian painter’s exhibit (incidentally the painter is also totally a zhent agent, too).
How will our players know to go to the gallery to open the cryptex? This is where we're getting more into adventure design than puzzle design, so let’s just say we use the three clue rule to point them in the right direction. A clue written on the cryptex, evidence of the zhent agent’s destination from the same place the cryptex came from, and the fact that PCs probably have some zhent agent around to interrogate to get that info should cover our bases. Sure, they might decide instead to torture a zhent for the solution instead of doing our puzzle, but that’s D&D, baby. Plus they’ll still have to show up to the gallery collect the tiles, at the very least.
And when they show up, the gallery opening party is going on (unless they wait specifically otherwise) which is great because now the puzzle isn’t just an obstacle, but an extra layer to a separate encounter. The PCs might have to interact with this puzzle as subtly as they can while dodging party guests and possible zhent agents. Plenty of space here for D&D shenanigans as we also do this puzzle. It also means that even if the PCs torture the solution out of a zhent agent, they will have an interesting encounter here trying to steal the correct tiles in plain sight of all the guests. That’s adventure design, baby.
Using the Puzzle Principles
Okay, let’s fix this puzzle proper. I’ll let my video>(https://youtu.be/UflzIdwByhw) speak for why the following principles are important and how I use them in D&D, but suffice it to say that they are an excellent lens for building D&D puzzles, because they take video game design principles and adapt them for the boundless nature of tabletop rpg possibilities.
Objects Suggest Mechanics
Something that a lot of people said in the original thread is that this puzzle would make more sense if we had the words “gnolls, werewolf, kobolds” set out in front of the PCs to play with. And that’s exactly right, because the objects we use in our puzzle suggest things to our players about how the elements are related and even what kind of puzzle we’re dealing with. So let’s give it to them!
At this gallery, each of the paintings has a letterboard-style placard underneath it with the title of the piece. Each painting’s title begins with the creature in question (e.g. “Gnolls fighting over spear,” “Beholder’s Beauty” “Werewolf in profile,” etc). And these letters are the keys to open the box. The correct letters from the original puzzle arranged in the correct way (i.e. OWLBEAR) will unlock the cryptex.
The riddle is still here, too, but I might edit it. To be honest I’m not entirely sure what clues you’re supposed to get from the riddle, except the referencing to counting and the monsters. I’d maybe change it to this:
dedicates this gallery to the secret knowledge that all monsters contain. To gain that knowledge, one must know where to start. Count on these enemies to collect the source of the secret.”
Maybe that’s too direct, but keep in mind that you and I already know the solution – your players do not. And never underestimate your players’ ability to go off on wildly incorrect tangents. Plus, even if this puzzle is trivial, you still have the drama and fun from the surrounding party.
This is a lot of info to keep in one’s head at once, especially if we’re going have a party scene going on, so let’s make some reference-friendly handouts for the gallery. You should definitely have something for the paintings. Maybe a quick sketch of each painting and its title written below it (or, if you’re artistically uninclined, a description of each painting and its title).
We could have handouts of the tiles, too. Get an old game of scrabble or bananagrams out. When your PCs pop out a key tile, hand the players an actual tile! Or you can just have a piece of scrap paper for the players to keep track of which letters they’ve popped out. This will really help as the PCs are thinking out the puzzle and wondering what kind of password they might be assembling for this cryptex.
So the players need to know when they’ve guessed right and that they’re getting closer to correctly opening this box. In this puzzle, it's most important for the PCs to know when they've picked the correct letters. One option is that only the OWLBEAR letters are keys, and the other tiles have straight, round shafts that don’t look like keys. When the PCs find a tile with a key on the back, this lets them know they’ve picked a correct letter (if you’re using scrabble tiles as handouts, remember to mark the ones with key backs as you pass them over).
Does this mean the PCs can “brute force” this stage of the puzzle by just checking every tile until they find the key ones? Yes. But maybe that’s okay? There’s another step to this puzzle, after all. Plus, there’s this whole party thing going on which makes that strategy trickier to pull off.
Introduce Mechanics Slowly
If a puzzle has too many moving parts and rules and pieces, you might want to slow things down and show players how individual bits work before putting them together in more complicated puzzles. I don’t think that’s the case for this puzzle, though. The ideas of this puzzle are simple enough (find keys for locked thing) and its structure already introduces the players to only a couple ideas at a time (a locked cypher, then key tiles, then an unscrambling). But playtesting could easily prove me wrong.
Give Redundant Information
All that being said, we want to make sure our players are thinking about the correct parts of our puzzle, and aren’t investigating some weird thing of their own. So let’s break down every conclusion our players absolutely must make to solve this puzzle and make sure we have at least 3 clues in the puzzle that we can be almost guaranteed the idea will cross their mind. Where we don’t have enough clues, let’s invent some (this is more of Justin Alexander’s Three Clue Rule goodness, by the way).
Revelation One: The placard letter tiles are the keys to unlock the cryptex
- Clue: The tiles are the same shape as the indentations in the cryptex and have shafts the same size as the keyholes in the cryptex
- Clue: A DC 15 Perception check discovers “oh hey these tiles are removable”
- Clue: Some guest at the party straight-up accidentally knocks a tile loose near the PCs – and the PCs catch a glimpse of the shaft on the back as the guest replaces it.
Revelation Two: The Correct Keys are the Xth letter of each title, where X is the number of creatures within the titular painting.
- Clue: There are 7 slots in the cryptex and 7 paintings; suggesting that you need only one tile from each title.
- Clue: “Count on these enemies” in the riddle suggests counting the number of monsters.
- Clue: "that all monsters contain" suggests the keys are within the names of the monsters.
Revelation Three: Spelling OWLBEAR unlocks the cryptex
- Clue: The cryptex won’t unlock with the letters in any random order, suggesting the order is important.
- Clue: The puzzle is very monster-focused, so the name of a monster fits.
- Clue: If the PCs interrogate a Zhent agent, they might learn that their cypher boxes are often opened with words rather than a random assortment of letters.
- Clue: The only 7 letter word other than OWLBEAR those letters could spell is “rowable.”
The above also comes with the caveat that your players already know what an owlbear is and have it bouncing around in their heads while they’re playing with this puzzle. Honestly I’d probably change this if I were playing with newbies, or make sure that the PCs have a big run-in with an Owlbear earlier in the adventure.
But Don’t Take My Word For it
I just put this together over the last couple hours, so I’m sure it’s a little rough around the edges and could use a playtest, but hopefully you can see what I’m going for here. The puzzles in Tasha’s aren’t bad, but they do require careful thought and work to get a puzzle ready for D&D
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