Help with skill / puzzle challenges


Shadow Lodge

I'm running a published scenario that has a section which feels a bit like a combat slog. I'd like to add some noncombat content but am not sure how to do so within the constraints of the scenario. The PCs are in the Worldwound, trying to prevent demons from dusrupting a ritual taking place under a ruined church of Desna. I'm thinking I could add some ghosts or other supernatural entities for them to talk to but am looking for ideas for skill based challenges, puzzles, or exploration elements to add. Not sure of player builds yet, though one is a paladin.

(This is in the pathfinder playtest, but I thought folks in the general forums could provide some good ideas, and I'm not worried about messing with the playtest now that the surveys are closed.)


Liberty's Edge

Hrm. Puzzles are harder if the players are waiting for enemies to come to them, instead of going to explore somewhere.

Find a demon in disguise - chase scene if they are escaping
find cultists among the innocent or priests.

the demons are doing their own ritual somewhere, need to solve puzzles to get in

Shadow Lodge

Yeah, the fixed site is a big part of the challenge here.

I was thinking I might disrupt the environment halfway through in some way which would give a mini-exploration activity. Maybe the ruins could cave in revealing a new room, or the ritual could have a magical effect on the environment that could be interacted with.

Demon in disguise is a good idea - even if it doesn't end in a chase having an extra social encounter will make my group happy.

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A ghost shows the party a secret passageway leading to a magical treasure left by followers of Desna, to aid the worthy when it's needed most. It's protected by... whatever types of puzzle you think the players would enjoy.

The ghosts of those who were killed in the early days of the demonic invasion appear to haunt the party with images of how they died.

A crack forms in the ground; the instability of the area reveals something ancient and terrifying below.

A mysterious stranger arrives; is it an oracle of Desna, here to help? Or a succubus, trying to trick you into desecrating the temple by blaspheming the things Desna holds most dear?

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The thing with skill challenges, puzzles etc is getting the players to play them as such. For example, if you have a ghost show up and the PCs have come to the ruins to kick butt and chew bubble gum, they might decide they're all out of bubble gum as the ghost materializes; one casting of a spell that grants Ghost Touch on the DPR character's weapon and your specter is but a memory.

You can change this up using Haunts instead, but again, these might just be attacked by anyone flinging Positive Energy. Traps can be binary, disarmed by a single skill roll and a bit of time, or someone with high enough AC, Saves, HP and stats may just decide to barrel through the trapped area and soak the effect of said trap so progress can be made.

Anecdotally the only way I've made skill based encounters work isn't by involving environmental manipulation or convoluted mechanics, but just by telling my players. Seriously. I have a module I'm running where the PCs begin play at level 1 and pass through an area with random encounters up to CR 7. On one unlucky roll their path crossed near the lair of a hill giant. Faced with such an opponent I decided to run it as a skill challenge and when they ID'd the monster I flat out told them - going toe to toe with this monster will likely destroy you all; you might want to try a different approach.

Of course at first they thought I meant they should just sneak up on it and attack it from stealth/range. I had to tell them that perhaps skills like Diplomacy, Bluff and such might be better.

I guess my point is: if your adventure seems like a combat slog and you want to inject different kinds of encounters that you think your players would also enjoy, obviously do so. Just know ahead of time that your players, in the moment and the heat of their characters' mission, may decide to just handle everything tactically anyway.

If you want to slow down the action/combat with diverse encounters perhaps telling your players in some way, either bluntly or through NPCs/villains, may be advantageous up front. Some other ways to foreshadow such encounters in TV or movies are changes in lighting or music, so perhaps an environmental cue either in the game world or even where you and your players are gaming in real life.

As for how to add them... I really like Mattie D's suggestions above. Some other scenes and scenarios might be:

A section of the ruin collapses, blocking your current path, however it also reveals how the rubble could be rearranged/manipulated to reveal hidden paths (like a video game block-moving/placing challenge)

Fey bound to the service of Desna have preserved an underground wilderness with challenges to "heroes" of the goddess to prove their worth, the promise of holy artifacts to use as their prize

The ritual has already begun and the forces defiling the temple wield massive amounts of demonic energy that physically repel the PCs; entering other sub-levels of the ruins however to unlock reserves of Desnan power can have one of 2 different effects, based on you, the GM: either the PCs unlock these vaults that weaken the barriers enough for the PCs to smash through them, or Desnan Travel magic flings them beyond the barriers so they can continue their progress through the main module areas

Pocket dimensions: yes, Desna is the mistress of travel. Long ago, anticipating the devastation of the area by the Worldwound, several McGuffins were tossed into pocket dimensions and protected by tricks, traps and monsters to prove the worth of those who would find and use them. Over time however some of the portals have been discovered and corrupted by other beings/forces.

Now this suggestion could be a mini-game inside the main plotline if you really wanted to take it to the Nth degree. Each mini-dungeon might be self-contained within the confines of the ruins, certainly, but they might also be scattered around the land and lost to time. PCs might have to find them, using Gather Information rolls, traveling overland and gaining access to them through different means.

Desna is also the deity of musicians and imagination, so access to the demi-planes or pocket dimensions might be gained through song or recitation of poetry (riddles and such). Once inside challenges might still be intact from the goddess' powers - things having to do with Revelry, Liberation, Chaos and Luck, etc, or you could drop in level-appropriate corruptors who have changed the mini-dungeon to suit their own needs, like some demons that have perverted the place or some evil fey that have made it more wild and so on.

Finally the McGuffins gained within need not be actual weapons and armor. Consider making them innocuous items which definitely seethe with power but otherwise defy identification. Perhaps one is a single leather boot; it has no artifact powers the PCs can make work but if taken to the ruins and placed next to another boot that was rooted in place by Desnan magic long ago, the boots together reveal a section of the temple not even the Worldwound has found yet - the PCs can use this area then to recover between encounters.

As the PCs gather these items, they all relate to an event of significance, though not one known to the general populace or even scholars of the fallen temple. The items may've belonged to a humble traveler who came to the temple on the last day before the corruption began. Said traveler was considered very special to the goddess and as demonic energy began to tear through the temple they were visited by none other than Nightspear, one of the most powerful servants of Desna. The intervention of the holy Agathian utterly destroyed the hapless stranger, scattering their essence into these mundane objects and flinging them into the demi-planes in which they now reside.

Reassembling the objects helps restore the traveler who in turn could provide the PCs with some vital info that may yet turn the tide of the adventure. While interacting with these items, PCs may get glimpses into the past, the moment when it all went wrong, allowing you as the GM to deliver snippets of info through flashback scenes. These scenes would be mostly just storytelling but maybe they reveal some clues you need to give to the PCs to get them to the next objective or something as well.

Shadow Lodge

Thanks a bunch for the detailed suggestions - I've needed to take a bit of time to digest.

I'm not worried about my players turning a skill encounter into a combat. My group tends towards a low-combat playstyle, and will usually try talking to things that look like they are remotely willing to talk before rolling initiative (and sometimes after - I've had them talk two opponents into surrendering in the adventure so far). I'm worried that the upcoming scenario is going to feel too combat-heavy to them compared to our usual play, so I'm trying to find encounters that are intended to have solutions other than "fight." If they do decide to fight anyway... not the end of the world, though I might cut sessions a bit short if the amount of combat is starting to wear on me.

As per the specific suggestions, I like the idea of having collapsing ruins reveal things about the environment such as hidden rooms, and the block-moving challenge sounds interesting if I can figure out how to set it up (I might lift a setup from Undertale...)

I love the idea of using Desna-themed demiplanes to mix up the environment without actually leaving the site. This could potentially be paired with ghosts or other reflections of the place's history that the group would find informative.

Having elements related to song may be neat depending on group composition, and having poetic riddles will be fun regardless.

The setup of reassembling the Desnan traveller sounds really neat, though I'm not sure I want to expand the module quite that much (I'm running a module to minimize my prep work). If I don't use that now though, I'll probably pull it out for a future quest!

Mark Hoover 330 wrote:
The ritual has already begun and the forces defiling the temple wield massive amounts of demonic energy that physically repel the PCs; entering other sub-levels of the ruins however to unlock reserves of Desnan power can have one of 2 different effects, based on you, the GM: either the PCs unlock these vaults that weaken the barriers enough for the PCs to smash through them, or Desnan Travel magic flings them beyond the barriers so they can continue their progress through the main module areas

To clarify: the party is protecting a good-aligned ritual on the site from demons that are trying to disrupt it. The ritual energy could absolutely still unlock various things about the site and its history that could interest and challenge the PCs.

One thing I've been doing that my players like is skill challenges from 4e. It's better than puzzles/riddles that can be annoying and it gets players involved.

Let's say you want to party to destroy the ritual. You want a hard challenge, so say DC 20. The party needs 5 successes before 3 failures to stop the ritual (if you use this again, keep the 3 failures, adjust the DC and successes needed). I realize your PCs are trying to keep a ritual going, but this is an easier example to explain.

Obviously Knowledge (planes), knowledge (arcana), and spell craft would work, but anything your party could think of should be allowed a roll if they have an explanation. Knowledge (religion) to get insight from their god. Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate to distract someone in the ritual.

The main catch. Is Player 1 uses Knowledge (planes), pass or fail, he may no longer use knowledge (planes). Player 2 can attempt a knowledge (planes) check too, but then he get locked out of it too. This makes sure the skill monkey or knowledge wizard isn't the only one rolling to help.

I love puzzles and other skill based challenges and find that they can be a lot of fun.

However, as Mark Hoover states above, you have to be very careful. The biggest problem with puzzles and riddles and the like is that they always seem obvious to the person who crafts it, or who already knows the answer, but they are not always obvious to other people. What's worse, this is an area where it just feels wrong to let the "character" figure it out when the "player" can't.

What I mean by this is, none of us can fight a dragon, but our characters can, and we understand the basic mechanics behind it (roll to hit, etc.). When presented with a puzzle though, often times the character will be much more intelligent or wise than the player (note this isn't meant as an insult, just that most of us, myself included, are not 18 Int types). But, when the player gets stuck on a puzzle, there's no real mechanic to help them out. I mean sure, you could do an Int or Wis check to get a "hint" but that . . . feels wrong. Same with an Int check to just solve it. Even worse. Even if the character would have been smart/wise enough to figure it out.

The key with puzzles and riddles and the like is this: don't make them a mandatory obstacle to defeat in order to progress. Rather, defeating said puzzle/riddle should instead give the party an edge. Using LotR for instance. "Speak 'Friend' to enter." should not have been required in order to enter the dungeon. Notice how the quest ground to a halt when they couldn't figure it out. Rather, it should have been used to gain entrance to the secret entrance that would bypass much o Moria and avoid the orcs altogether. Not being able to figure it out, the party could have still gone through the front door. Etc.

One of the things I've done in the past, especially 4th Ed., is to have hindering traps in the middle of an encounter. For instance, the trap that shoots a ray of energy at people in the room. The ray might not do a lot of damage (compared to the main enemies in the room), but if ignored, the damage will add up. Something like this can also let certain characters, like the rogue for instance, shine in a combat that might otherwise not have been ideally suited for him. Hard to sneak around in an open room, but hey, the rogue can disable the trap while everyone else is fighting, etc.

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