by Mari Tokuda
I love puzzles and riddles and ciphers; I started my career working on the Nancy Drew PC adventure games, so it’s in my professional DNA. You could say that I’m a little bit obsessed. For gamemasters, puzzles are a fun way to change the dynamic of a game or get your players involved in a different way. If you’ve ever done an escape room, you know what I’m talking about. With the Dune universe’s abundance of espionage, backstabbing, and political machinations… well, puzzles, riddles, and ciphers fit right in!
So, let’s discuss where to find inspiration for your puzzles, tips for implementation, and some examples.
I really enjoy looking through history for ideas. Try reading about Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine for some brilliant, real-life WWII decrypting. Spy museums and histories are another treasure trove of clever ways to hide tools and messages in plain sight. Semaphore or Morse code are some other real-world examples that can have neat in-game applications.
For example, a pair of undercover agents might need to communicate with each other to undermine another House. Using a cipher of some kind would come in handy. And having the players find it, whether the message is meant for them or not, can be exciting.
A lot of science experiments are actually super effective here. Think of the classic lemon juice on paper trick. When looking through different kids’ activities, you’ll often run across simple ciphers and other fun ways to encode messages that can have a big impact without too much effort.
For example, if your players uncover a double agent working for the Padishah Emperor, perhaps they can find an encrypted shigawire on them. Letting your players decrypt the shigawire using a simple decoder can change the way your table feels.
Tips and Tricks
- I recommend keeping puzzles on the simple side. It’s easy for players to get sidetracked finding the answer. And, as an addition to increase immersion, you might not want it to consume an entire session, which a complex puzzle can.
- If you’re creating a cipher, I suggest providing the key or legend. For example, don’t expect your players to know Morse code... and don’t make them look it up because that could pull them out of the game.
- Prepare some hints in advance just in case. There are a lot of skills, traits and abilities that the players can use to get a hint if they get stuck.
Ideas for Puzzles
This one is super simple. You can write a letter or note on a piece of paper and tear it up to make a cheap, easy “jigsaw” puzzle.
- To increase the difficulty, you can use an already torn piece of paper, so that the players can’t use the perfectly straight paper edges to solve it.
- You can also give the players the pieces over time to spread it out and maximize the drama... just make sure that they can’t figure out the contents until you’re ready for them to. And save the most interesting piece for last.
- How can you use a puzzle like this? This is great for revealing a clue about a rival House getting ready to declare a War of Assassins on the players’ House, a traitor in their midst, or an economic weakness their enemy is trying to hide.
Use a toothpick or paint brush to write a note in lemon juice on a piece of paper. When you’re ready for the players to learn what the note says, give them a hairdryer, heat gun, or (with an abundance of caution – I’ve learned this from experience) a candle to heat the paper and reveal the letter.
- To increase the difficulty, you can write the note using some kind of cipher or code.
- If you want to throw the players off, write another note on the paper with regular ink... then surprise them with the hidden message later. Muahahahaha!
- You can incorporate this type of note into gameplay easily. Perhaps, the players have a secret Bene Gesserit ally leaving them secret messages, or they’ve intercepted confidential orders from the Padishah Emperor to a minion who’s working to create a rivalry between the players’ House and another House.
The Cardan grille cipher is a great example of a very old way of sending messages. Create a letter or note, and then on a separate sheet of paper that would go on top of the original note, cut out slots for words, phrases, or even individual letters that will display a hidden message for the players.
- To increase the difficulty, you can use several Cardan grille ciphers on the same letter. The players may have to put together the information from the various ciphers to reveal the final message.
- It can be fun to provide some valuable information to the players in the original letter or note and then either contradict it or reveal additional information with the Cardan grille. It’s a nice twist they might not see coming, especially if you give them the letter and the cut-out cipher(s) at different times.
- To integrate this type of puzzle into your adventure, you can have the players intercept a spy or an assassin communicating with their patron with a Cardan grille. Or, perhaps they can discover that Harkonnen loyalists are planning to take over a spice processing facility and are coordinating their movements using this type of code.
A House is never safe from intrigue, either internal or external. Dune is a universe of conspiracies and schemes from the highest levels. Secret messages, encoded shigawires, and hidden threats can boost the drama and add some... spice to a campaign. (Yes, that’s a Dune pun. Yes, I’m a huge dork.)
Creating puzzles is a fun, maybe different, way to get players involved in your story. I hope that this is helpful and makes your gamemastering a little easier!
Find Mari on: https://www.maritokuda.com/