Are riddles even fun?
Riddles are a disputed topic in TTRPGs. For some GMs they work great, for others the players just find them an annoyance. The problem with riddles is that they ONLY challenge the players, not the player characters (PCs), and let’s be honest, this is a game where the player characters are the ones actually inside the game, so they should be the ones challenged.
But at the same time, this argument falls kind of flat, because one of the core ethos of classic tabletop role-playing games is: “Player skill over character skill” (like I’ve written in the post “How to think OSR“). So which one is it? It should be a healthy mix of both, both player skill AND character skill, why else would they have stats, HP, equipment and spells? Of course we need to challenge both. But the next question is then; How should this be balanced? 50/50? 30/70? 10/90? I would say that most GMs that feel that they’ve nailed it are performing a delicate balancing act, calibrating it real time at the table. There is no simpler answer than that I’m afraid.
Let’s get back to riddles
So we have equal arguments for both using riddles and not using riddles. So the pragmatic question here is: How can we use riddles? And I’ve got an answer to that question!
How to use RPG riddles effectively
The solution is actually not complicated at all. You just have to secure the following two things:
- The answer to the riddle must be found within the same adventure location.
- The riddle must make sense from an in-world perspective.
Here are some examples to help explain it in more detail.
1: Placing the answer in the adventure location
This can be done explicitly, as in the answer being “Dragon” and the temple the riddle is asked in is adorned with dragon tapestries and dragon statues. Dragons will undoubtedly be top of mind for the players, so understanding the riddle and figuring out the answer will be easier.
It can also be less explicit, such as the answer being “Sun” and then placing the journal of the crazy old wizard who sealed the vault with a riddle somewhere in the tower. When reading the journal the players will find equal mentions of the wizard’s studies of the monstrous fish in the lake, his meditation sessions in the morning sun and his fascination with death, then write the riddle in such as way that “Sun” is the only reasonable answer of the three: “Fish, Sun and Death”.
Make sure to marry this to the second point, “The riddle making in-world sense”. This is best done by using thematic riddles that fit the world or the region the PCs are currently in. If they encounter a Sphinx in a cursed pyramid, make sure the riddles have that exotic Egyptian/middle eastern vibe to them. Doing so comes with two benefits, the first one is that it feels cohesive and cool, the other is that it becomes easier for you to place the answer to the riddle in the adventure location. If the answer to the riddle is “Camel” then you can have ancient murals featuring camels prominently. If the answer is Scarab, then have golden scarab statues scattered around the pyramid, and so on.
2: Make in-world sense
Don’t use riddles where the answer is “A fridge” or “An airplane” if you are playing a fantasy ttrpg like Adventurous or Shadowdark. The riddle needs to make sense to the character in the fiction and be about something they are familiar with. Here is a great classic from The Hobbit:
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.
The answer is “Time”, and time is a concept the PCs are familiar with, the same goes for birds, mountains, iron, stone, kings, towns etc. It fits perfectly.
Another great one from The Witcher:
To all things and men I appertain, and yet by some am shunned and disdained.
Fondle and ogle me, till you’re insane, but no blow can harm me, cause me pain.
Children delight in me, elders take fright, fair maids rejoice and spin.
Cry, and I weep, yawn, and I sleep, smile, and I shall grin
The answer is “Reflection“. All the concepts mentioned in the riddle should be familiar to the PCs in a fantasy world.
Closing thoughts on the topic of RPG riddles
If you follow the above two points of advice you will level up your riddle game and it will be evident that it works at the table. Your players will feel challenged, but if you’ve placed enough in-world clues to the riddle they will most certainly be able to solve it by remembering the stuff their character has seen or experienced when exploring the dungeon, this will make them feel smart!