Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 August, 2009

Brainstorming puzzles in dungeons
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:10 PM

In a recent project I participated in, the goal was to clone some of the old style RPGs in mazes, with Dungeon Master being the main example.

One bit of work I started and that others added to, as to make a list of puzzle types in these types of games. Since the project has stalled, I figured I’d post the list here for others. Full list after the jump.

The goal was to list as many different types of puzzles as possible so that we could pick and choose which ones we wanted to use.

I’ve removed a few items that were super-specific to the project.

  • Illusions – Things that do not appear as they really are.
    - Secret doors, illusionary walls, false monsters wandering around.
  • Locked door – Character has to find a way to unlock it.
    - Can be just about anything blocking the player’s progress, including NPCs.
    - Often there is a key in another part of the dungeon that must be found.
    - There could also be a condition met to open the door instead of just finding an item.
  • Switches – Levers, buttons, or other features have to be put in a certain configuration to produce an effect.
    - Commonly, this can open a door or stop some other hindrance.
    - Levers can be all in location, or spread out over the entire dungeon.
    - Random level combinations without any hints can be frustrating.
    - Could use a Bejewelled-like or sliding puzzle concept here for moving objects around to form patterns.
  • Pressure plate – Something happens when the character enters an area and stands on the plate.
    - Perhaps the plate is reset if the player leaves. An object (or monster) needs to be on the plate.
  • Timer – Players must perform some action then take advantage of it before time expires.
    - Example: flipping a switch then going through the door it opens before the door closes some seconds later.
  • Multi-effect – Some event has multiple effects that the player must use together to get the desired final result.
    - Example: Meridian 59 underworld node.
    - Example: switch 1 affects areas 1 and 3, switch 2 affects areas 1 and 4, switch 3 affects areas 2 and 4, etc.
  • Trivia – The game poses a question the player must answer.
    - Can be tricky if there is limited input.
    - In a few old RPGs, the dungeons formed a giant crossword puzzle to be solved while killing monsters.
  • Message – A cryptic message that gives a hint about a nearby event.
  • Pattern – The player must recognize a pattern and complete it.
    - Could be an input (selecting a response) or an item found in the dungeon.
  • Mini-game – Some small game the player must play to create an event.
    - Classic example is a slider puzzle.
  • Drop-off – Character can go over the drop-off, but cannot climb back up. Other characters are not restricted from joining the player.
  • Cave-in – Character triggers a cave in and cannot retreat. Other characters of other players cannot take the same path to join the player.
    - Or a door that locks behind the character, etc.
    - This can be used continuously to create a “one-way” puzzle where the player cannot backtrack.
  • Conveyor Belt – Characters are forced to go a direction.
  • Ice – Like a conveyor belt, but the character keeps sliding in one direction until they meet something, such as a wall.
  • Special Movement – Characters must move around an area in a special movement pattern to engage an event.
    - Moving clockwise or counter-clockwise in a circuit.
    - Turning in place a specific number of times.
  • Damage – Characters take damage if they walk into the area.
    - Could also remove some other resource like food, gold, or mana.
    - Designers should avoid “instant death” type traps.
  • Projectile – Projectiles fire continuously (or when characters are seen). Characters take damage if they stand in the way of a projectile.
    - Usually the correct solution to the puzzle is to turn off the projectiles some other way.
  • Hidden Feature – Some feature in the dungeon, such as a damage area, is hidden from the player.
    - May be revealed when triggered.
    - Characters may have abilities to detect the hidden feature.
    - A dungeon may have an item that reveals these hidden features.
  • Infirmity – Characters take a penalty for walking into an area that remains, such as being poisoned.
  • Restriction – Character cannot perform a specific action, such as casting magic, while in an area.
  • Darkness – No reliable game-generated map of the area.
    - Can be annoying without some sort of cues to guide the player through the area.
    - Could also be used just to hide monster movement in the area, like a fog effect.
  • Disorientation – Character is turned and not moving in the same way they were before.
    - Only works without a reliable map or compass heading.
  • Teleportation – Character is suddenly moved to another part of the dungeon, perhaps even another level.
    - Having a series of teleporters that lead to smaller rooms with multiple teleporters in them can form a sort of mini-maze.
  • Pit – An impassable space that the player can look over (and shoot or cast spells over).
    - Can also be water or some other obvious hazard.
    - Some event may close the pit for characters to cross.
  • Boulder – A large rock that can be pushed around in front of the characters, but can be blocked by something (like a monster or a wall) on the other side. Characters cannot walk around it.
    - Can be used with the pit trap to create a puzzle where players “fill in” the pit.
  • Notice – Something a character does (like walking into an area with an alarm) alerts the monsters in the area, causing them to seek out the character.
  • Monster Abilities – Monsters may have some special ability that affects the player.
    - Monsters stealing items or gold.
    - Monsters that rust equipment.
    - Other monster that should be kept at range.
  • Mystery Items – Items whose exact function is unclear ot the player.
    - Example: Unlabeled potions with unknown effect until used.
    - There should be some way to figure out the effect, such as potion color indicating effect.
    - This could be randomized for each dungeon.
  • Riddles or word/logic puzzles – These are often used as hints for another puzzle, but could be fairly easily randomized so replaying a level isn’t identical to the first time.
    - Doesn’t have to require text input to solve, could provide hints about how to get around a dead end in the maze, for instance, or could be multiple choice, with glowing buttons on the wall to be pushed to select an answer.
    - Example: One of these doors leads to gold, one leads to a monster, and one leads to a weapon. The one with the weapon is a color that rhymes with “old”, the one with the monster is made of dwarf wood, and the one with the gold is a trap.
    - Example: The classic one of these characters always lies and the other always tells the truth
  • Follow me – quick! (or White Rabbit) – An NPC or just a glowing sphere moves at a steady pace through the maze, will show you the way out if you can keep up.
    - Could be combined with the darkness or fog puzzle.
  • Memory – Player is told something at the start of a quest that will be useful later.
    - Example: Boss monster is weak to swords, but regenerates from ranged magic.
  • Power up – A feature gives the character a (temporary) bonus.
    - Example: shrines in Diablo games.
    - Effect is generally temporary (just for the dungeon), but could give a permanent boost.
    - Effect could also be mixed: +2 to one piece of equipment, -1 to another.
  • Help or Harm – A feature in the dungeon can either help or harm the character. Players have to decide if the risk is worth it.
    - Example: fountains in some RPGs. Some heal hit points, some give negative status like poison or damage. A character very low on hit points with few other options may drink from a fountain and hope for the healing effect.

Special thanks to Wendy Despain and Timothy Crosby for contributing to the list.


  1. Great list!
    Off the top of my head I can’t think of any other puzzles.

    Comment by CodeJustin — 22 August, 2009 @ 9:29 AM

  2. Reading this list is a little like watching one’s life flash before their eyes. Thanks!

    Comment by David Sahlin — 22 August, 2009 @ 11:03 AM

  3. Cool list. One of the old monster abilities you saw in 8 bit games was the mirror monster. He would move as you did, either exactly the same or the opposite, so you had to move the monster to the right position to kill him, via environment or sword.

    For projectiles, often what you do is not turn them off, but give the player a shield to deflect them, and use them to activate switches or kill enemies. Usually switches needing to be dealt with at range is a staple of the genre.

    On disorientation though, reversing the players movement is okay, but players hate it when you disorient them in any other way. Remember the whole “upside down level” fad? Messing with the spatial sense of your players is a sure-fire way to annoy them, and usually is never fun. Portal only worked with that because it took 80% of the game to teach you the rules, and each section was relatively simple until you got to the hard modes, and then you knew if you liked it or not.

    Comment by Dblade — 23 August, 2009 @ 12:41 PM

  4. Hah, these bring back memories.

    Yendorian Tales: Chapter 2, D&D: Warriors of the Eternal Sun. Why must I play games nobody else has ever heard of? :p

    Comment by Gar — 24 August, 2009 @ 7:57 AM

  5. Yeah, I *hated* the Eye of the Beholder disorientation puzzle(s?). It drove me crazy until I figured it out — since the compass at the bottom didn’t animate, it took a while to spot it changing, and meanwhile our painstakingly hand drawn graph paper maps didn’t seem to make any sense.

    I’m also not a big fan of teleport sub-mazes unless you can really tell where you are at each moment due to landmark features, different themes, etc.

    Regarding the White Rabbit: I find it works best (or at all?) if the Rabbit is not restricted in some way that the player is, e.g., the orb floats over pits, the rabbit burrows through holes, the ghost is not attacked or blocked by enemies… This means it can move quite slowly while the player is scrambling to get around or defeat obstacles, using all the other mechanics in the list.

    Nice work on the compilation!

    By the way, I know it’s a derivative, but I love the “light puzzle” mechanic. Basically a switch, of course, but pushing mirrors around to get a beam to a certain spot is a classic. Also applies to water, etc. Regarding water, I love it when you’re required to combine two dangerous elements into a solution — pull lever opening floodgate, run to grab rope dangling from the ceiling, water flows into and fills hole with spiky bottom, swim across safe pond. :)

    My favourite part of Dungeon Master is still the rune-based magic-crafting system. I even created something like that for my tabletop AD&D sessions… I found the construction paper “runes” the other day as I prepared for a move. Not sure whether I had the heart to throw them away… Ah, the memories of youth, how hard they are to toss — and then again, why should we? ;)


    Comment by Shade — 24 August, 2009 @ 11:23 AM

  6. Amazing list. It reminds me so much of old school games I loved – Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, etc.

    Mind if a fellow game developer copies down this post for future reference? A list like this could be extremely handy.

    Comment by Muckbeast — 27 August, 2009 @ 10:09 AM

  7. The main reason I posted this here was for people to use it as a reference. Feel free to use it as you like. A note thanking the source or link back to this page is always appreciated.

    This list was linked from Tales of the Rampant Coyote.

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 August, 2009 @ 11:50 AM

  8. Excellent list!

    I think more then anything it shows that challenges can be given without a need for further technological innovation.

    From a MMO perspective the list also inspires me in terms of what future games can hold. Combine any three elements from that list and you have yourself a very entertaining encounter :)

    Comment by Kristine — 29 August, 2009 @ 3:39 AM

  9. Game Design: Capturing That Old-School RPG Flavor (New & Expanded)

    [...] Brainstorming Puzzles In Dungeons [...]

    Pingback by Tales of the Rampant Coyote — 20 March, 2010 @ 10:44 AM

  10. Delving into Grimrock

    [...] Legend of Grimrock is very obviously a game of the old mold. While playing, I was reminded of a list of puzzles from old RPG games I helped to compile. It still used the grid-based movement, which is viewed as [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 21 July, 2012 @ 4:40 PM

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