Turning a Monster Into a Puzzle

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?

4 thoughts on “Turning a Monster Into a Puzzle

  1. Frederick Coen

    There’s the old nilbog, that was healed by damage and harmed by healing.

    In my last campaign, there were Far Realm goo creatures that worked kinda like Star Trek Borg. Whatever you hit them with worked the first time, but then they got 1 point of resistance against that damage type and increased their own attacks by 1 point of that damage type. They didn’t start very powerful, but repeated light hits were definitely not the right solution!

  2. Skulmarus@yahoo.com

    In my last campaign, the party was exploring the site where the god of violence had been killed, which was still haunted by the god’s essence. Intruders would find themselves attacked by a minor avatar of violence, a large man bent on single minded carnage (think fantasy Jason Voorhes). If anyone, including one of the avatars, died a violent death within the area, two more avatars would spawn on the following round.

  3. Ilbranteloth

    A number of things to comment on here, but let’s start with: “When did you last see players run from a fight?”

    In our campaign the answer would be quite frequently. To me it’s not so much a function of monster/encounter design as it is campaign/game design. We prefer for the PCs to be the underdog and combat to be deadly. Combat shouldn’t be the default option when encountering something, and fighting to the death even less so. I know that unless I had no choice, I certainly wouldn’t stick around if I was significantly injured (reduced to 50% or less of hit points).

    So puzzle monster or not, a large number of combats in our campaign result in retreats, regrouping, and planning a solution. Often that occurs before the combat, and in either case the solution often involves finding a way to work past the danger without combat.

    For decades I’ve heard/read about DMs who lament (or are even angry) that their players know the monsters’ weaknesses. They often look for ways to penalize or punish their players. I’ve never quite understood it, because it usually doesn’t make sense to start with. If you grew up in a world where civilization has been fending off trolls for tens of thousands of years, then you’ll definitely know they are susceptible to fire. An iron golem is clearly not going to be something you’re likely to damage just by hacking away at it with a sword.

    But in many cases, such a creature isn’t designed to be something to just kill. Gamers tend to look at anything with hit points as a ‘combat encounter,’ and that’s a trend I’ve fended off for 40+ years of DMing.

    Puzzle monsters, or those that are either too powerful, or have too many immunities to just attack, are one approach to this. It’s a reminder that in many cases, the best (or only) option is to find another solution.

    Unfortunately, the modern approach to adventure/encounter design is that each encounter is a test against the mechanical capabilities of the PCs. This makes some sense, they’ve often designed their characters around their special abilities and want to use them. But it also means that the expectation is that each encounter is ‘winnable’ and that the only measure of success is to defeat (kill) the monster.

    Our campaign approaches all of this quite differently. The PCs are focused on their goal(s), whatever they may be. In which case any given encounter is usually just an obstacle along that path. They aren’t there to be defeated, but overcome. An invincible monster is often an opportunity to find a solution other than combat. How do we get past it? My players tend to look for non-combat, or less-combat solutions first, so a monster that has some unusual immunities isn’t foreign to them.

    This is particularly true of undead. They have basically separated undead into three categories – ghost, skeleton, or zombie. In addition, in our campaign necrotic damage doesn’t heal naturally, only through 5th level or higher magic. Since we often hang out with 4th-level PCs for years, they take undead very, very seriously, even though many of them don’t inflict necrotic damage.

    It’s this type of variation of puzzle monster that really puts fear in the players/PCs. We use a similar approach to fiends, dragons, etc.

    Many people feel that immunities are too restrictive. We feel the opposite – immunities force the players/PCs to consider far more options than just combat. Because they have to.


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