Guest Author - Lloyd Brown III
Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code is a different kind of action movie, where the puzzles are more cerebral and less physical. If you like to challenge your players' mental faculties as much as you challenge their tactics and role-playing skills, this type of puzzle can be just the trick.
If you’re one of the 8 people who has not seen or read the DaVinci Code and knows nothing about it, this article might contain information revealed at a dramatic moment in the book. Go read another article. Ye hast been warned.
The story has all the hallmarks of a great controversy—conspiracies, church scandals, secret societies, hidden messages, but there’s more. It’s just a good story, with information doled out in bits between interesting character backstory and a break-neck pace, all of which makes you go slack-jawed through the entire book. Or movie. Whatever.
As a DM, you’re always on the lookout for elements you can use in your game. You vacation at the Grand Canyon, and you think “What a great place for an adventure!” You adapt storylines from movies, villains from comics, and graphic elements from video games. You take bits of everything to improve your game.
The DaVinci Code highlights the use of puzzles and secret messages and heightens the tension by providing great danger for failure (in that powerful people are trying to kill the heroes) and huge potential reward for success (the secrets of the Catholic Church). How does that not sound like a D&D adventure?
Puzzle the First
The Fibonacci sequence. The numbers 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…form a common mathematical progression called the Fibonacci sequence. In it, each number is the sum of the two numbers before it. A common puzzle requirement in gaming is to have players responsible for determining the pattern and predicting the next number. Perhaps they have to remove a certain numbered stone from a wall to discover a place to use a magical key. Or perhaps they need to determine which key to use.
Other common puzzle number sequences include a doubling (1, 2, 4, 8, etc.) and prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11…). You can add your own progression, like 3x +1, where x is the previous number. This formula yields 1, 2, 5, 14, 41…
In order to make the puzzles more difficult, you can provide fewer numbers.
Puzzle the Second
The next puzzle is a simple anagram, or a rearrangement of the letters in the word to form other words. In The DaVinci Code, the author gave the clue “so dark the con of man”, which is an anagram for “Madonna of the Rocks”, a famous DaVinci painting. Having the anagram written in the book before the protagonists discussed it allowed the reader the potential to figure the problem out based on personal knowledge. In a D&D game, your players often don’t know the names of many famous paintings. They might know the names of cities, major characters, or countries, so those names are fair to use.
The website http://www.wordsmith.org/anagram/ can help you create your own anagrams.
Puzzle the Third
The next puzzle was the cryptex, the scroll-case looking thing the protagonists found in the safe after following the first two clues. It’s like a combination lock, trapped to destroy the contents if the person attempting to open it uses the wrong code. You could leave a clue on the container holding the cryptex (as Saunière did in the DaVinci Code), or you could leave it elsewhere.
D&D has magic that can open such devices, however, so you might want to use a little license when copying this puzzle. My favorite is a deceptive and apparently random clue. The clue is meant to waste the time of anyone intercepting the message. The real clue the scroll case or cryptex contains is hidden in a magic mouth spell that the intended recipient can trigger. In D&D, a character with Use Magic Device might be able to trigger the magic mouth once he determines that the false puzzle is a decoy.
Puzzle the Fourth
The next new puzzle involved deceptive writing. “The knight a pope interred” was meant to be read as “The knight A. Pope interred,” a reference to Alexander Pope, who gave a eulogy at the burial of Sir Isaac Newton.
You could simulate this deception with other abbreviations. “St.” stands for both Street and Saint, for example. A bard is a musician, while barding is armor for a horse.
Puzzle the Last
Once they arrived at the location Newton’s tomb indicated, the protagonists discovered the final nature of the puzzle. They had earned their reward.
Likewise, you should follow Dan Brown’s example and dribble clues out in segments over a period of time. Don’t leave players empty-handed until the big “info dump” all at the end. Give them different parts that puzzle them, scare them, scandalize them, and, finally, awe them.