D&D 5E Riddle Mechanic? Suggestion? Advice?

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I love riddles.

I love the old fantasy adventure trope of the heroes being faced with a riddle they need to solve to get past a monster, get through a doorway, access a treasure, or get some piece of info that will help them.

What I don't love is the all or nothing aspect of a riddle that make them not as fun at the table.

I am less concerned with the conflict between player and character knowledge or smarts in solving them, because as I have said before I see D&D as a cooperative game, so group intelligence/discussion can stand in for the knowledge and know-how of any one character when appropriate to the situation. So for example, the whole group might discuss a riddle out of character, including input from the player with a barbarian with a 6 Intelligence, but for the sake of the in-game fiction, the 18 Int wizard is the one who answers.

So yeah, I am not concerned with that aspect. On the other hand, riddles can still be tricky (that's why they're riddles) and I think no one is satisfied with a riddle that seems too easy or so common almost anyone can get it.

So what I want to develop are simple rules for allowing a group faced with a sphinx (for example) to both think through and try to answer the riddle on their own, but then have some kind of graduated skill checks that provide clues of increasing helpfulness so they are less likely to get stuck.

I am not sure I need this mechanic to work across the board. It would be sufficient to develop some one-off thing I can put to use. I think this because it seems to me that for such a system to work each riddle and the DCs for the hints would have to developed on a case by case basis. As such, for the encounter I am developing I think the PCs will have 3 guesses, but for each guess they get wrong what they get for their (eventual?) success would be lessened.

I am also trying to figure out if if makes sense to have characters make individual skill checks for these hints or make it a group activity with group skill checks (if at least half those involved make it they get the clue). I'd also like to make it so that multiple skills could be put to use. So for example, if a history check is made to try to figure out some degree of clue, maybe a higher roll of a different skill (let's say arcana or insight) could provide a different and better clue.

So if we take an example riddle from The Hobbit just to work with
Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

The hints at each DC could be

  • "Answering correctly might be a fluke"
  • "It is not a mineral." (as in animal, vegetable, mineral)
  • "It lives in water"

Now, these examples might be too easy but I am just trying to think it through - and obviously, I'd need to think through good DCs as well.


So anyone have suggestions or even another system they have come up with or know of to suggest?
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
Why not the old-school way of leaving it to the players? With a group of people and their collective brains and education it shouldn’t be hard to sort out. As you say, there’s a split between the table and the fiction. The players can solve the riddle but the answer comes out of the mouth of the character with the highest INT.

For mechanics, simple INT checks for hints would seem to work well enough. Maybe particular skills would be appropriate based on the answer. In this case Nature.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Why not the old-school way of leaving it to the players?

In my experience, this has never been a satisfying experience. The riddles are either too difficult or too easy. I'd rather lean towards the former and give hints - so it becomes a kind of mini-game. The players will still be the ones working to figuring it out. They are rolling for hints, not answers.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I'm not a huge fan of riddles myself, but sometimes for thematic purposes I might include something like one. What I do is ground the riddle in some kind of knowledge that is relevant to the setting but that the players are unlikely to know (often because I just made it up). It then makes sense to me to resolve that with Intelligence checks, if there's an uncertain outcome and a meaningful consequence for failure. It saves time on the players noodling over something and potentially killing the pace of the session. The rules also suggest a Wisdom check might resolve getting a gut feeling about what course of action to take, so you might consider using that as well when appropriate.

The thing that I don't love about this resolution method though is that it doesn't really change anything. The attempt at the task costs the PCs nothing (time, maybe, if it even matters?) and they're right back at square one if they fail. With no real cost for failure, everyone makes the attempt and so there's no meaningful decision there or trade-offs to consider. With that in mind, you might consider success on the check to be a strong clue and failure to be a weak clue. Or even success on the check to be the answer to the riddle and failure to be a clue. This means they always get something which moves the scene forward in some way, even if it doesn't come with a true cost.
 

I think the concepts fine, but it's also going to be a lot of work. Obviously you have to start with only hard and uncommon riddles, since easy ones don't need any help. Then you have to figure out several clues that don't just automatically give away the answer. Your example ones are really good, but doing that repeatedly is hard. As for the actual mechanic, I'd suggest setting an Int DC: 10, and you can keep attempting clues until you fail the check. If you want to make some clues better, then you increase the DC by 5 for those clues (ask the player for what DC they want to attempt).

My experience with riddles is that it's often a "I've heard this one before" or not situation. Perhaps it's because of the internet or the fact that I play with several DMs who've looked them up themselves, but I find it hard to even find a good riddle that no one's heard yet.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
So I do something similar to this with puzzles at the table - I will start by putting the puzzle out there and if the players can solve it themselves then great - no need to do anything else.

If they're struggling with it for a while and folks are starting to get frustrated or bored I'll call for a check of some kind - Int or Wisdom usually - possibly modified by a skill if I think it's appropriate. The highest roller who gets over the difficulty I set (usually 15) gets a sudden insight into the problem - like the hints you've outlined for your riddles. I don't usually penalize them for using up all of the hints, but if they can't solve it after they use up all of the hints I'll give them one last roll to solve it (at a higher difficulty - usually 20) and if they fail that roll they don't get the solution. Or if the entire group blows 3 insight rolls entirely then we call that a failure too and they suffer the consequences.

It works quite well for my group - I have a few players who absolutely love puzzles and a number who tolerate them, but the hint checks allow for the ones who tolerate them to feel like their characters can potentially contribute to the solution even if they themselves can't.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
You could put the clues in the adventure.

At different times during the dungeon the party comes across things - symbols, patterns, writing, oddly placed furnishings, etc. That at first don't make sense but once presented with the riddle serve as clues to the answer.
 

Urriak Uruk

Gaming is fun, and fun is for everyone
In my experience, this has never been a satisfying experience. The riddles are either too difficult or too easy. I'd rather lean towards the former and give hints - so it becomes a kind of mini-game. The players will still be the ones working to figuring it out. They are rolling for hints, not answers.

My recommendation, is make your riddle, and if it's looking like it's too hard to answer, let a high INT PC do a skill check. If successful, give them a hint!

Any more mechanicization of riddles than that though... I'll be honest, will not be that fun. Skill checks are only fun if both failure and success are interesting (succeed and you carefully get across the decayed bridge, fail and the ropes snap and you dangle precariously!). But failure/success for a riddle is boring; you succeed and you get the answer with no fanfair, fail and you just don't know.
 

zedturtle

Jacob Rodgers
So my approach is this:

1) this is a betting game. The riddle-asker puts a coin on the stump (in the pot).
2) each player that wants to take their chances matches the coin on the stump (throws into the pot).
3) the riddle-asker asks the riddle
4) going in whatever order, the first player-character gets to go. If the player knows the answer to the riddle, then their character has advantage on their check (the setting/system had a specific Riddle skill, but this could be just Intelligence straight). If not, the player still rolls... the character might know the answer, even if the player doesn't.
5) depending on the exact situation, each player/character answers might need to secret, so that everyone has a sporting chance.
6) first one to produce the correct answer wins the pot!

This seems to have enough stakes and interaction to be fun and can allow (depending on group/venue) for everyone to have fun, especially when a character 'tells' their player the right answer after a bad guess.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
It seems to me like you have identified the core problem, which is the all-or-nothing nature of a riddle. You get the answer or you don’t, and whether arrival at one of those points comes through player knowledge or through an ability check of some sort, it’s pretty unsatisfying either way. What about instead of a single riddle, you do a Hobbit style Game of Riddles, where both parties take turns posing each other riddles until one side or the other is stumped (or gets stumped X times, or whatever other variant you like). That’s complex enough that it could probably be run as a skill challenge.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I’ve tried a few things over the years:

  • Int checks with varying degrees of success to give hints
  • Extra guesses equal to the highest character’s Int modifier
  • Everyone in the group can collaborate before making a guess
  • Players with high Int characters allowed to use out-of-gameworld helpful resources (books, maybe a google search or phone call to a knowledgeable person)
  • Multiple correct answers to the riddle/puzzle
  • Secondary (and possibly tertiary) ways to circumvent the riddle/puzzle

And one my son uses when he creates open-ended puzzles:
- If they don’t get it by the 3rd guess, the 4th guess is the correct answer (but he never tells the players that)
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
It seems to me like you have identified the core problem, which is the all-or-nothing nature of a riddle. You get the answer or you don’t, and whether arrival at one of those points comes through player knowledge or through an ability check of some sort, it’s pretty unsatisfying either way. What about instead of a single riddle, you do a Hobbit style Game of Riddles, where both parties take turns posing each other riddles until one side or the other is stumped (or gets stumped X times, or whatever other variant you like). That’s complex enough that it could probably be run as a skill challenge.

Interesting, except I am not going to ask my players to come up with riddles on the spot and I am just abstracting the riddle to just "riddle and roll for answer" makes it seem like no point for having riddles at all.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
It seems to me like you have identified the core problem, which is the all-or-nothing nature of a riddle. You get the answer or you don’t, and whether arrival at one of those points comes through player knowledge or through an ability check of some sort, it’s pretty unsatisfying either way. What about instead of a single riddle, you do a Hobbit style Game of Riddles, where both parties take turns posing each other riddles until one side or the other is stumped (or gets stumped X times, or whatever other variant you like). That’s complex enough that it could probably be run as a skill challenge.
Building on this, you could also make it one riddle with multiple steps to solve. Instead of one success equals a clue or one success equals the answer, have it be…say four successes equals solving the riddle…or wins the riddle contest. Either four riddles or the four lines of one riddle.

Using the riddle from the OP, each line can be solved or responded to in turn, the clues listed. Once the group solves the lines or the characters make successful checks, they get one step closer. If any of the players solves the riddle, that’s it. You’re done. But if they’re stuck, the checks are made and the clock progresses.

Each line “solved” or success is one mark closer. You need four to be done with the riddle and solve it. Or the players solve it themselves.
 



el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
The monster I plan to use for the encounter I am building (which comes to the PCs at their HQ) is a clockwork sphinx (I got the mini in my mini subscription box and it gave me the idea) and my idea that has come to me while ruminating these responses is that there will be multiple guesses and for each wrong guess, some aspect of the clockwork monster will change and become clearly more threatening and difficult - so running out of guesses means fighting its most powerful form.

In theory they can still defeat it through fighting even if they get the riddle wrong, but it will be a lot harder of fight and they will get no additional info they need to follow up more efficiently on what solving the riddle gets them.
 

Stormonu

Legend
You might want to go a bit further on that:

Solve it in one guess: No fight, or fight is easier; miss the guess and in its arrogance, the sphinx offers a clue
Solve it in two guesses: Sphinx flys into a rage at the correct answer; normal fight - if this guess is missed, the sphinx makes a sarcastic remark that doubles as a clue
Solve it in three guesses: Sphinx is enhanced/emboldened by the party’s inability; fight is harder than normal
Can’t solve after three guesses: Sphinx is greatly enhanced and attacks the clearly inferior PCs; they may need to run and come back later to try again.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
A braindrizzle, not sure how useful this could be but...
Maybe you could abstract away the guessing of the riddle itself with a word game of some sort? Eg, make the riddle/s difficult, but instead of hints, let players zero in on the answer using a game of hangman or something.

In this case, the word game isn't really happening in the game world; it's just a sort of thematic abstraction of the party pondering the riddle. But since it's got clear rules, it provides a framework to hang some ability checks on without having to calibrate the "difficulty" of riddles and hints. In the case of the hangman game, high Int checks in the fiction mean "warmer" guesses, but at the table they result in more letters for the puzzle game.

I guess the point is to transform the riddle encounter into an simple-to-rule mini-game* for the players' sake, but in the fiction keep narrating it as PCs failing/succeeding on guesses. I mean if the players guess the riddle immediately, good for them! But if not, you've got a system in place to help advance the encounter in a fairly well-defined way way.

Whatever you decide, I hope you share it after the session. I'd love to hear how you end up handling this!


* A physical analogy might be using a few rounds of paper football to resolve the Super Bowl in the fiction, if that makes sense.
 



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