Building Better Campaigns Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 3


After the wait for part 2 dragged into the span of months I figured I’d best have part 3 out a little sooner, so here it is!

This piece continues where Part 2 left off. We spent the entirety of that part talking about Megadungeons and a way of structuring them to fit with our Subdivided Contiguous Overworld structure. This mainly leaned on the idea of gated progression, and we discussed how those Gates needed to work for us. Now we’re going to cover the idea of using puzzles as our Gates.

The Scope of the Puzzle

When we discussed the Gates one might put in place inside a Megadungeon we brought up examples that were all very broad. One did not continue by doing something as simple as solving a riddle or beating a monster. Our Gates required multi-part quests to be completed (as in our example of contacting and befriending an earth elemental), or required political shifts to take place (as in our example of our players ingratiating themselves with a hostile Goliath tribe).

So how do we make something like a puzzle also be this broad? Well first we need to look at the fundamental mechanisms of a puzzle. I’m going to use the idea of a coded language.

The party has arrived at the door to the artificer’s workshop only to find that it is locked, indestructible and magically inert. The owner has spared no expense when it comes to security. The only thing of note are a series of glyphs on the door in an unknown language.

Usually a code puzzle is solved by accessing a cipher. When we want to make this more complicated we can provide the players with only a partial cipher and have them figure out the gaps using logical deductions. In fact, savvy players can even unwind something like a substitution code without even needing a cipher.

We need to essentially provide the party with a cipher but make its acquisition a far greater task than merely finding a document lying around the workshop.

A Breadcrumb Puzzle

Defeated, the party return to the base camp where they figure they could at least ask the resident Arcanist about the glyphs. He says they sound familiar and may be related to a more ancient form of Celestial often used in holy texts. Alternatively, while moving through the Holy Palace the party may discover other sources of this glyph-based text, but only if they’re really looking at the scriptures about the place. Also, given that the Holy Palace is overrun with demons they probably didn’t have time to stand around looking at old tomes and murals.

Either way, now the party can access more text. Perhaps enough to start decoding a little of this themselves if it’s a simple substitution code.

Honestly this extra added step of having to find more text to decode is enough for a small Gate, especially since the text is in a combat-heavy area of our Megadungeon. Let’s say that we want to go further though.

The party can acquire more samples of the glyphs from the Holy Palace, but they still need to decode it somehow. The same Arcanist from earlier knows a Linguist, but he’s currently on a delve with another group out in the Noble’s District (or perhaps the party have met this Linguist themselves previously and don’t need an NPC to point them toward him). The party could try to track him down, but also there’s the nature of the language itself. It’s related to an old form of Celestial, so perhaps if they could find some way to contact a Celestial being they might be able to get some help. The summoner who helped the party contact the earth elemental may help, but he requires the heart of a powerful demon as a part of the ritual.

Either way, the party is led down some other tangent before eventually having enough of the language to decode as well as the help of someone with the knowledge to decode it. Now they can unlock how to read the glyphs and return to the workshop.

At this point we can again have them progress if we want. The glyphs on the door are a riddle, and the answer spoken aloud will unlock the door.

Or perhaps we want this to be more expansive and involved. The glyphs on the door speak of a key. The party scours the workshop for a key and find a record of a storage facility in the Arcanists’ District belonging to the artificer who lived here. They suspect the key may be there. Add challenges to accessing this district as desired.

And So It Goes

You can honestly spiral this outward as much as you like. You can continue adding layers and tangents to your heart’s content. That being said though it’s important to not go too far. The players still need to feel a real sense of progression. If every step closer just sends them on another wild, multi-session tangent then eventually they’re going to become frustrated (unless of course this is the core premise of your campaign and the players are on board with that). Be sure to have the party make serious steps forward, and also make sure each step isn’t too drawn-out. Indeed a good idea is to vary the length of each step. Perhaps decoding the language is difficult and lengthy, but finding the key is relatively simple, then after that there’s another obstacle that’s a bit more difficult and lengthy to overcome again.

Even More Crumby

There is yet more that we can do though when it comes to having breadcrumb puzzles. This leans on something I like to call ‘The Passive Underlying Puzzle’. During their time throughout the ruined city the players may come across scattered, seemingly-unrelated breadcrumbs which eventually, either upon reaching a critical mass or after the reveal of some big piece of information, turn out to be all connected to some grand underlying mystery. Let’s say this underlying mystery is ‘What happened to the race of Celestials who lived here?’.

First the party finds some interesting glyphs on the door of the workshop they’re trying to access. Then later as a part of finding a demon heart the party closes a portal to the Abyss deep in the catacombs of the Holy Palace and find the portal was being kept open by a warped-looking version of those same glyphs. At the storage facility in the Arcanists’ District where they find the key they discover notes that imply the Arcanists were not to be trusted and things had become dangerous.

It may already be clear where this is heading. Certainly we’re heavily implying the nature of what went wrong here.

Finally the party accesses the workshop, and inside they find a device that transports a target person into a pocket dimension the artificer has constructed. In their notes they talk about the dangerous experiments the Arcanists of the city have been conducting with Abyssal energies at the behest of the Priesthood. The Artificer knows eventually something terrible will happen, so he has constructed a haven that he can transport the citizens of the city to when the inevitable occurs.

Through our breadcrumbs that were themselves initially tied to unwinding our door puzzle we’ve also revealed and solved the deeper mystery of the city and its inhabitants.

Maybe the next quest the party dives into is entering this pocket dimension in an attempt to free the Celestials hiding out there. Perhaps this pocket dimension is a Megadungeon all of its own…

It’s Puzzles All The Way Down, Baby!

This is exactly what I mean when I talk about using not just game design but specifically puzzle game design. We want to layer puzzles within puzzles, have smaller mysteries that feed into bigger mysteries. We want puzzle solutions that only give us breadcrumbs toward other puzzle solutions. Essentially we want to tie those Gates to a series of nested puzzles, then tie solving those puzzles to engaging in other adventuring. As we come to combine it all together we have an immensely satisfying resolution for our players.

I’ve used the example of a Megadungeon for these last two parts as from a worldbuilding perspective they provide a good microcosm of a larger campaign setting. We can broaden these lessons beyond just the Megadungeon by expanding the scale of our puzzle. Rather than crumbs being in different districts of a city they may be in entirely different cities on entirely different continents. We can go as big or small as we like.

This also starts to bring us back outside the model of the Subdivided Contiguous Overworld, as entire settings tend not to be quite so Gated in the physical sense (where are Megadungeons very much are).

An Outro For Now

We’re starting to move beyond the concepts we first discussed when we started exploring how puzzle game design could inform our campaign design. Originally we were talking about world structures, and those provide an excellent framework for creating engaging campaigns, but there’s more still beyond those structures. Before we get to that stuff we’ve got one more world structure we want to discuss, and that’s what’s coming up in the next part.

I’m very glad the wait for this part wasn’t anywhere near as long as the wait for the last one. As always this has gone up here a few days ahead of being posted anywhere else, so thanks for coming here to read my content!

2 thoughts on “Building Better Campaigns Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 3

  1. “It’s Puzzles All The Way Down, Baby!” is a strong contender for my favorite subsection title. 🙂


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