When designing puzzles for D&D, Pathfinder, or any other TTRPG you might think that you want to build a single correct solution. It’s a puzzle afterall, so shouldn’t there be a way to solve it? While this is true for some things, and definitely true for things in the real world, doing so for your TTRPG is often a mistake. While making puzzles, obstacles, and traps for your game can be challenging, the biggest trap you yourself can fall into is one that limits your player’s options.
What’s Wrong With Single Solution Puzzles?
When a puzzle has only one solution the game you’re playing becomes linear, no matter the system. It isn’t inherently bad to have a linear focus in a game, but when it’s a single puzzle in a dungeon full of obstacles, your players will want to try to solve it and move on. What happens when there is only one solution is that players may start to guess and check until they get the answer right. Again, this is fine, but the real trouble here is not that they will fail until they succeed, it is that the ways they fail might be entirely reasonable solutions to a problem and those failures can feel really bad.
Looking at this another way, when a puzzle has only one correct answer you are throwing away a million creative solutions that would be more fun for your players. This can lead to some ridiculous scenarios. Let’s say solving the puzzle in question opens a stone door. Your players might want to break the door down, but you have to say it’s too hard to break through. Then a player might have a spell that shapes the earth, and they want to make a hole through the door. In turn, to keep with the one solution to the puzzle, you have make door magically protected. Then they say, well if the door is protected why don’t we tunnel around it, or blow it up, or do any other manner of silly thing to get through it!?
Sure, they could interface with the puzzle and solve it the way you intended and then move on, but there are more possible ways for your players to do things that are magical and amazing then there are excuses for this particular puzzle to be protected against every form of ridiculous amazing thing your heroes can do. At a certain point, preventing creative solutions takes so much more hand waving than just accepting a non-traditional answer.
How Single Solution Puzzles Hurt Player Enthusiasm
On top of things getting ridiculous very rapidly, shutting down your players for trying to use the tools they have as characters is a very bad thing to do. If a player takes a spell for their character that has utility functions, but you as a GM deny those utilities for puzzle solving or trap disarming, or overcoming other obstacles, just because you planned the obstacles, then the players will feel like they were being punished for being prepared!
The more players feel they can’t use the abilities their characters have the less engaged they will feel at the table. On top of this they might start to lose enjoyment for the game and they might even start to regret building their character in a particular way altogether. This is a sure fire recipe for a group to fall apart fast.
How Single Solution Puzzles Hurt GMs
When you force your players to go through single solution puzzles, you deny them some utility. Moreover you posit a world where they have obstacles that can’t be overcome in creative fashions. Because of this you also set yourself up to normalize ridiculous security measures in places where these things come up.
Let’s say your players are facing a single solution puzzle and find they have no way to get through the walls, or break the door, or otherwise subvert the puzzle. What that leads to is an understanding that there are common and reliable ways to entirely thwart your player characters. What happens when these players later want to make their own base and try to make walls that can’t be tunneled through or doors that can’t be broken down? Do you tell them they can’t? Why did the dungeon they were just in have those features when they can’t obtain them for themselves?
Sure you can dismiss some of this with hand waving, but the challenge to the GMs credibility and world building will always sit there out in the open. It shows the world as being either unfair, or exposes too much of the game as being a game for the GMs sake alone. Both situations feel bad for everyone at the table.
A Better Way Than Single Solution Puzzles
When you have a puzzle in your game that starts off looking like a single solution puzzle, there are alternatives to designing it in this way that have much better effects.
Why Are You Using Puzzles?
Before we fix up the puzzle though, we need to ask why the puzzle exists. If the puzzle exists just because it’s a puzzle, it should be redesigned or scrapped altogether. Puzzles in dungeons, including traps and other similar types of obstacles, all serve a purpose. Typically, that purpose is defensive. Puzzles, in the literal sense, prevent only those in the know from progressing or they test someone’s “worthiness”.
When using puzzles in this way it certainly makes sense that your players wouldn’t know how to overcome a challenge. If you’re in a cultist’s lair and the puzzle that unlocks the door involves you knowing the cults’ rituals, then your players might be out of luck on a solution until they figure out more about the cult. That’s a purpose built puzzle that helps progress the story and improve the immersion of the game by asking your players to learn about the cult they are infiltrating.
However, when the players decide that learning about the cults’ rituals is probably a bad thing to do though, they might just smash their way through, and should be allowed to, with some caveats.
Turning Single Solution Puzzles into Multi-Solution Puzzles
The single solution puzzle falls down when prodded enough. Not only does it make the game worse, as we’ve already described, but it also brings the possibility of getting stuck into your game. To prevent this, you should allow alternative solutions to be used, even if you don’t plan for them. Not all solutions are created the same though, and you can reward players for better problem solving skills.
If your puzzle can be solved by straightforward means then that should be the best, fastest, and most reliable way to get through it. If you want to deter brute force solutions, you can make those types of solutions possible, but at a cost of either time or energy. Maybe forcing the door triggers a trap or an alarm. Maybe getting through the puzzle is something they need to do quickly and brute force will be the slowest way through. These things make engaging with the puzzle as intended more plausible and leave other options as second tier at best.
Sometimes, even when you planned on the puzzle to be something straight forward, your players just won’t be able to figure it out. This is where alternate solutions come into play most frequently. To solve this, let your players try whatever they want. The more creative, the more you can reward them with alternate pieces of information. Maybe the group’s rogue figures out that solving the puzzle via its normal interface triggers the door to open, but then asks to look for a way to bypass the puzzle interface entirely. This might be possible and is akin to disarming a trap. It’s a creative solution and they might fail at it, but they should have a chance at success, especially if they got stuck on the puzzle and can’t figure out another way forward.
Simply put, allowing your players to try things rewards them for thinking and they will likely come up with things you never thought to plan for. So roll with the punches and let them try. They might fail, they might succeed, and they might come out worse than if they’d just done the puzzle normally, but that’s part of the fun of TTRPG.
The GMs Role In Allowing Experimentation
At the heart of this issue with single solution puzzles is the concept that experimentation needs to be allowed rather than locked down. Most TTRPGs are designed to allow for players to try out all sorts of stuff. That’s really the primary benefit of TTRPGs over computer RPGs, they’re infinitely flexible, so long as the GM allows them to be.
Sure, there are rules you need to account for, but the GM’s role is to facilitate the use of the rules to allow for anything to be tried out. If your players want to do something stupid, they can. They might be punished for trying something stupid, but it’s your job to let them rather than tell them they can’t. If they do something unexpected, great, they’re trying things! Maybe they try a smart thing every once and awhile too, even better. Ultimately, the game system will tell them no for you if you apply the rules and let them experiment, and sometimes against all odds it will tell them yes when you never would have thought to do so.
Applying this can be exhausting for a GM, but taking the time to think about what your players are asking to do and finding a reliable way to let them try it will make your game more fun for everyone, you included.
Stop Forcing Single Solution Puzzles and Embrace Creative Solutions
The chaos of TTRPGs is where a lot of the actual fun comes from. More than the chaos though, the tools that your players use to interact with the world can make for truly unique experiences. Allowing players to get creative about how they handle any scenario will make your game more engaging and players will start using all the things they have at their disposal. While single solution puzzles shut players down, embracing creative solutions can do just the opposite and keep your players coming back for more adventures week after week.