How To Design Puzzles Part 2: The Scrivener’s Tomb

Intro

So the last part left you in the lurch a bit. I said I was going to teach you how to design puzzles, but I never actually showed you how, I just delivered to high-concept ideas and put in an example and a counter-example.

As promised in the last part, this part is going to go step-by-step through how I designed a puzzle. The whole way through I’ll be linking things back to the concepts outlined in the last part.

Without any further delay let’s dive into The Scrivener’s Tomb.

The Dungeon Itself

So the titular Scrivener is the keeper of all knowledge and lore in this setting. I wanted a Holistic Dungeon that built off this theme, so I made my overarching mechanic be about writing systems and runic symbols.

Then I decided ‘fuck it, let’s make this harder for me’ and put 3 different sets of symbols in the dungeon, all of which needed to be learned in order to navigate and complete the dungeon. These were, respectively: a writing system, navigation glyphs, and property runes. The writing system allowed me to put coded messages throughout the dungeon (which were used to learn the other symbols). The navigation glyphs related to a puzzle that showed the order the dungeon’s rooms had to be traversed in. The property runes allowed the party to manipulate objects by imbuing them with properties (such as ‘On/Off’, ‘Open/Close’, etc).

 I’m going to go through the first of them: the writing system.

The Writing System

This is a simple alphabet cipher. Each letter is represented by a symbol. The alphabet is the same as ours with two exceptions: it doesn’t have the letter Q and the letter V is used for V and U. The reason for this is now I have a 24-letter alphabet. Why? So I can do this:

This is the master sheet I made for myself. It was the first thing I designed for this dungeon. With this I can now represent the entire alphabet with just 6 different symbols, and the orientation of the symbol changes what letter it corresponds to.

That’s all it is, just a letter substitution cipher. But because of the rotational property of the symbols it’s not easy to brute-force the cipher the way one usually can for ciphers of its kind.

Learning The Cipher

The first puzzle involved learning this cipher. This was done through several steps. Remember in the last piece I talked about how The Witness teaches you rules in a step-by-step manner? I applied the same process here.

The first thing that happened was they entered a hexagonal mausoleum, which sealed shut behind them. On the floor a hexagonal inlay started glowing, along with a number of glyphs on each side. On the wall was set of 6 tiles (arranged, unbeknownst to the players, in alphabetical order). There was also a riddle in common on the same wall reading ‘He who follows the law by the letter’.

Here is what the floor looked like:

The party already somewhat knew what this meant. Each set of symbols labels the direction of that edge of the Hexagon. It had been established previously in the campaign that Hexagonal chambers have a North, North East, South East, South, South West and North West edge.

So now they knew which symbols corresponded to the letters in each of those words. This is where they could also start to notice that a symbol one way was one letter, and if it were rotated it would be a different letter.

Next were the 6 tiles on the wall. They were manipulate-able. The party could freely unslot them, rotate them, then slot them back in to the wall.

The first part of the riddle was ‘He who follows the law by the letter’, the answer was ‘Abides’. Using their 6 tiles they needed to spell this word.

Then another line would illuminate, reading ‘He who leads down the path that is better’, with the answer being ‘Guides’.

Left to Right: ABCDEF, ABIDES, GUIDES

From this they had enough to decode the full alphabet, and also the staircase down into the dungeon proper would be revealed.

There was one final detail. Another word was carved using these symbols into the exterior wall of the mausoleum. The party had taken a rubbing of these symbols before they entered and now that they could decode them they found it spelled ‘Scrivener’. This did 2 things. Firstly it provided their first reward for learning the cipher. Secondly it taught them that ‘U’ and ‘V’ used the same symbol.

Logical

The symbols on the floor very obviously corresponded to words the party already knew. Making the assumption that these symbols were therefore part of an alphabet was a logical step.

The next step in logic was learning that the symbols, when rotated, made new letters. This was taught through the set of 6 symbols that could be freely rotated, as well as the fact that already certain symbols had been seen in different orientations.

Lastly, solving a riddle to find a word and writing it with the symbols at their disposal ensured they clearly understood the rules at play before proceeding.

Intuitable

Decoding a cipher is a simple process. It was made clear that there was some underlying pattern. This meant the way to progress and solve the cipher was to figure out the rules governing the pattern. Therefore the puzzle was made Intuitable as the process for solving it was clear, it was now a matter of seeking patterns and checking whether or not they worked.

There was one other thing that needed to be done though. The party needed to realise that this alphabet didn’t use Q. This was accomplished pretty basically. I told the party member who spoke Giant (the people that built this dungeon) that the Giants’ usual alphabet doesn’t have Q.

Not everything has to be a puzzle!

Solvable

This whole process took the table about 30 minutes. Your mileage may vary, but at my table where the players enjoy solving puzzles this was a good length of time. Any shorter and I daresay it wouldn’t have been worth the effort it took me to make this puzzle, and would have likely felt too simple and therefore not challenging enough for the players. Any longer and this would have felt tedious for what was only supposed to be an entrance puzzle.

So How Did I Build This Puzzle?

First, I looked at what I wanted to do. I wanted to establish a writing system that could be used to give clues elsewhere in the dungeon. This meant that the first thing I had to do was make said writing system.

With that done I had to develop a puzzle through which the party could learn this writing system. I began with words they already knew laid out using the new writing system. Then, because the writing system’s underlying pattern was based on rotating the symbols, I created a puzzle that involved actively rotating tiles with the symbols on them. This clued the party into the idea that all of the symbols they had seen so far could be rotated, so now it was a case of figuring out the underlying pattern so that they knew which letter each symbol represented.

Then it was a simple matter of making the components. Once I knew what I wanted out of them this took me about 30 minutes all up with nothing but a pencil, some paper, a ruler and a craft knife.

Do It Yourself, Step By Step

Step 1
Unfortunately the first step in designing a puzzle is actually ‘Come up with an idea for a puzzle’, and that’s not something I can teach you how to do, but keep in mind that you don’t have to start from having a fully formed puzzle.

Step 2
Instead, begin with what you want to accomplish with this puzzle and try and work backwards from that to come up with an idea. Do you want it to simply unlock a door? Do you want it to change the layout of the dungeon? Do you want it to provide a mechanic that can be used to navigate the dungeon or interact with other puzzles?

Alternatively, begin with what you want this puzzle to do thematically. In my case I wanted something related to the craft of a Scribe, so decoding a writing system felt like a natural fit. Perhaps you have some mechanic you want to explore, or perhaps your dungeon is fire-themed and you want all your puzzles to revolve around that.

Step 3
Figure out what your solve-state will need to be, then figure out what steps might need to exist along the way to that. In my case the solve-state was using the knowledge of the new alphabet to solve a riddle. The steps along the way were:
– Discover sets of symbols that correspond to known words
 – Learn that symbols rotate to represent different letters
 – Figure out the underlying pattern to the alphabet
 – Decode the full alphabet
 – Solve the riddle

This is the part where remembering the tenets of ‘Logical, Intuitable, Solvable’ is important. If your steps toward completion do not satisfy the first 2 of these, your puzzle will cease to be the 3rd.

Step 4
Now we have all the steps, it becomes a case of laying out puzzle elements that will allow the party to walk those steps. It can be difficult to do this, as we already know the solution, but attempt to approach it as though you don’t and work out what would need to be in place for you to figure out each step along the way to the solution.

Again we must keep ‘Logical, Intuitable, Solvable’ in mind as we design these elements and create our path toward puzzle completion that the party will eventually walk. Try your best to put yourself in your players’ shoes and see if everything makes sense as you try to solve the puzzle you have built.

Step 5
Make your puzzle. If you need to write anything down, draw any diagrams, draft any maps, etc, then that is the last step to having a complete puzzle. I also find it’s worth me writing down what I will need to say to the players as they approach the puzzle.

It is extremely important that the players have a clear description of the space they are operating in and what elements are at play when you enter them into a puzzle setpiece. Failing to describe some key detail will absolutely be the difference between a puzzle being challenging but straightforward and being completely unsolvable.

As an example, imagine if when running my cipher puzzle from earlier I failed to mention the 6 tiles on the wall were removable. Now the party would only be able to solve the puzzle if they happened to randomly ask ‘Can they be removed from the wall?’. Now yeah, the players might happen to ask that straight away, but they also might not ask it ever. It’s your job to eliminate the risk that the puzzle becomes a tedious slog just because some detail never gets noticed or mentioned.

From here you’re ready to roll your puzzle out at the table.

An Outro For Good

You should find yourself pretty well equipped now to build your own puzzles from scratch and not have them be 4-hour disasters. I may have more to say on this topic at some point (I always seem to come back to puzzles), but for now I think I’ve laid out everything I need to.

If you have any questions then I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments. Otherwise, thanks for reading!

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