When I run a game of D&D, I want my world to be believable. Monsters should dwell where they do for a reason; political unrest should have a social history; and each room in a dungeon should be used by its denizens. A cohesive world is more immersive to the players, and easier to improvise in as a DM.
However, there is one facet of the game which I have always failed to fit into the narrative: Why on earth would any dungeon-dweller fill their home with riddles, complete with hints to the solver?
For any other DMs who wrestle with this question, I present an analogy: Riddles are the dungeon owner’s password hints.
To illustrate this analogy, let’s say you’re a wizard who owns a dungeon. You are shrewd, intelligent, and terribly busy with your extraplanar research.
Within your dungeon, you have secrets to hide, from hidden architecture to precious ancient swords. Being shrewd, you hide them all, lest an intruder attempt to compromise your secrets. Being intelligent, you know that it would be foolish to hide all of your secrets in the same place. So you distribute your secrets across the dungeon, behind various traps and hidden levers.
But as busy as you are, you cannot be bothered to memorize each and every secret in your labyrinth of a dungeon. Sure, you can get from your bedchamber to your library, but do you remember which passphrase stops the magical flooding in the foyer?
So, like any 21st-century computer-user who hasn’t yet installed a password manager, you leave a cryptic indication of the password in plain sight. A phrase or image that will evoke the answer to you, but not to passersby. We in the 21st century call this a “password hint.”
Your hope, as the wizard, is that you alone will know the riddle’s meaning, and thus will be able to access your secret. Adventurers will only see cryptic runes, or perhaps an odd arrangement of colorful stones.
Within this framework, it is easy to see the fun for the PCs: their objective is to outsmart the wizard. If they can discern the hidden meaning of the wizard’s scant hints, then they are granted superuser access and allowed to access the secrets.
This brings a whole new meaning to a “hack-and-slash” adventure.
A few stray ideas you might employ:
- Maybe the dungeon owner likes to theme all of their passwords around a theme, such as “the planets.” Once the PCs have discerned the theme, the answers fall into place.
- Maybe the dungeon owner keeps all of their password hints in a book, which the adventurers find relatively early. The PCs can puzzle over these hints throughout the dungeon, especially when they’re bored during combat.
- If you really need the PCs to find the magic items that you hid for them, maybe the dungeon owner keeps a notebook full of the actual answers.
- Maybe some riddles have “red herring” answers which trigger a trap.
- Maybe the passwords, like our world’s security questions, they require knowledge of the dungeon owner’s life. This would require the PCs to do some investigation.