• Justin Handlin

Let’s talk about puzzles.



Guest Blog by Luke Pickles

If you want to check out his party’s adventures, you can see watch on Twitch.tv/eatcritsurvive on Fridays at 7.30PM GMT (or BST if its daylight savings) or on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7k5BkGLjk065g5d7n_QznKpJKlbgkh8r

Let’s talk about puzzles. Whether they are homebrewed or fresh from a book, they get players to utilise skills that they otherwise wouldn’t and to think about things that do not require an axe or spell to defeat… usually. But the way that players approach these puzzles is always fascinating. Sometimes you can predict what will happen to the letter, and sometimes… boy, you really can’t.


One of my favourite puzzles and solutions came out of my group, Eat Crit & Survive. We’ve been playing together for almost five years now and they still surprised me. I had decided that I wanted to throw a curveball, and where best to do that than a wizard’s tower? A location where, frankly, all bets are off. The puzzle was this:


“As you follow the corridor round to the left, it leads to a wooden door, covered with moss. Locked (DC15) expands out into a chamber with a 5-foot-wide boundary of a thick liquid pool that surrounds the room like a moat. It appears to be different to the acid that was pouring on you and there’s a thick metallic smell around you. On the wall on the other side of the moat is a hand mirror hanging by its handle about 10 feet off the ground. Behind the mirror is a curving arrow, moving clockwise.

3 blood zombies rise from the blood and attack.

Whilst the mirror is inverted, inverted rules apply. Players and monsters need to roll below AC and DC’s to succeed. Natural 20's and 1’s are switched – a 20 is an automatic failure, a 1 is a critical hit.

The mirror can be damaged but must be turned the right way up. When it is, everything reverts correctly and the door you entered in slowly opens, revealing a corridor curving in the opposite direction to how you entered.”


Now, this may seem like a mean trick (and it is), it was incredibly well received by the players. Describing how each attack seeming glances off or the zombies move with surprising accuracy, even with a natural 20, caused short-lived confusion before they realised what was happening. Now for context, these players were at level 7, in a group of six. A barbarian with a Strength of 21 and a ranger with a Dexterity of 19 couldn’t land any blows. Their higher AC, a usual blessing, meant nothing when the zombie didn’t need to get higher than a 13 on the dice to hit. And of course, there’s the whole “zombies can’t die unless they fail a saving throw under the damage they take” ability. Which under these rules means they either need to fall to minimal damage, radiant or a critical hit.


So, they did whatever they could to shift the odds in their favour. The barbarian and ranger swapped weapons. The woman who was happiest wielding her family’s great sword now danced around with a rapier, embracing the -2 to her Dexterity, whilst the great sword swung from the ranger with a Strength of 9. And to make their lives easier, they closed their eyes. The disadvantage made it easier for them, and they swung blindly, cheering at every natural 1.


When I ran the same puzzle a few months later with a different group of players, I had a very different solution. Exact same set-up, different bunch of characters, and they went about trying to solve the actual puzzle. They found the arrow behind the mirror, (something my regulars didn’t bother to do, they just smashed it with a thrown hammer) and deduced it to mean the mirror needed to be set upright. Solving that mean they could defeat the zombies more easily and get on with their day.


However, both sets of parties enjoyed the challenge and I thoroughly recommend it for a one-shot or part of a big adventure. And I love giving my players new challenges like this. Maybe next time, I’ll tell you about the mushroom spores that reduce a character’s proficiency bonus.


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