In first-edition Dungeons & Dragons, clay golems could only be hit by magical bludgeoning weapons. Also, only three spells, move earth, disintegrate, and earthquake, affected these monsters. As foes, they worked as puzzles. “Our DM ran the golem encounter from Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure this way,” recalls @Stoltzken. “It was terrifying. The key to making it work for us was we had fair warning in the initial round that this was as much a puzzle as a fight. First round was minor damage. From there on though…”
Poul Anderson’s novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) inspired D&D’s regenerating trolls. To the hero of the novel—and to early D&D players unfamiliar with the book—the problem of killing a troll makes a puzzle.
Now everyone knows how to kill a troll, and that shows one problem with puzzle monsters such as trolls and golems. Players learn the solutions. Early in D&D’s history, co-creator Gary Gygax figured that only dungeon masters would read the books of treasures and monsters. He assumed players would learn the game’s secrets in play. In practice, even kids who couldn’t find a group studied the Monster Manual. At every table, someone knew every monster’s vulnerability.
That problem invites obvious solutions: Invent new monsters, vary existing monsters with new immunities, or add secret enchantments that block familiar attacks. @StaffandBranch writes, “I ran a rock, paper, scissors, encounter where the rock golem could only be defeated by wood, the treant by metal weapon, and the storm of swords by stone or rocks.”
Recent editions of D&D rarely add strong immunities to monsters. The third-edition rogue reveals why. That edition’s designers gave rogues a sneak attack ability limited by numerous monsters immune to sneak attacks. Creatures like oozes lack vulnerable spots, so those limitations made sense. But players saw too many encounters where rogues could not use their signature ability. Since then, D&D’s designers have steered toward avoiding immunities that hamper characters and lead players to feel-bad moments.
Mainly though, the blame for driving puzzle monsters from D&D belongs to foolhardy players. When did you last see players run from a fight? In early D&D games, players expected to find monsters too strong to defeat. Fragile characters made retreat a common option. Often now, players who face a creature that seems immune to attack just try hitting harder. (See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.) When players don’t know the key to beating a puzzle monster, such encounters can lead to total party kills.
Still, puzzle monsters can enrich D&D and many players love them. Creatures with secret vulnerability make D&D games feel more mythical. They let players work their brains while their characters flaunt their power.
For some monsters, players can find the key to victory during battle. Perhaps pushing that clay golem into running water dissolves the thing. Often puzzle monsters must be trapped rather than killed. I’m reminded of Spider-Man trapping the Sandman in a vacuum cleaner.
Other puzzle monsters might require gathering lore and engaging with the game world. A hunt for a lich’s phylactery can work like that. Some might spur a quest for the artifacts that enable a monster’s defeat. Curse of Strahd works like that.
Puzzle monsters work best in games seeded with rumors of the creature’s invincibility and hints to the creature’s vulnerability. For players particularly slow to spot clues, devise a plan B enabling an escape or rescue. I once put a puzzle-based golem on a ledge over water. If the players took too much damage before spotting the creature’s invulnerability, the jump offered an easy escape. I didn’t even fill the water with sharks. Sometimes I’m such a cupcake.
The adventure Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess features my favorite puzzle villain. Spoilers follow. In the adventure, a rescued child whispers in an character’s ear.
“There was a bad old woman who lived in the corn.
Only children knew that she was real.
She had seven souls and couldn’t die the same way twice.
So all the children poisoned her.
Then they stabbed her and smashed her and sliced her
and burnt her and drowned her.
And then they threw her in the well.
That’s Six And Seven Makes All…”
To slay the witch, the players need to find a means of death the children never used.
What’s your favorite puzzle monster?