Read Between the Lines

Levels 1-4

An ancient script hides secrets the party needs. Will they be able to crack the code and unravel the mystery of the message?

A DnD Printable Puzzle To Drop in Your Game

I like to use a simple DnD printable puzzle like this when I need to improvise some kind of intelligence or code-breaking challenge at the table. In my games, it’s been a nice change of pace and allows players who speak up less often to say more. Printing it out lets everyone see it and participate together, like a co-operative board game.

I use a skill challenge format for the puzzle to “gameify” it a bit, otherwise it’s just hangman and I think that’s less fun. My goal is usually to hide the mechanics of the puzzle a bit behind an abstract layer of “game”, so the table feels like it’s their characters solving the puzzle and not just their own brains.

My favorite way of doing this is making it literally too hard to solve without failing, then have the bonuses and traits and backstories of the characters introduce enough clues to make it doable for the players. At the end of the day, it’s still the players solving the puzzle, just like they “solve” the puzzle of combat with their strategic choices of abilities and spells, but it feels more like the characters doing it.

Make an easy riddle for your party with this DnD printable puzzle

So the basic format I use is a “hangman” style game where the players have to guess a certain word or phrase by guessing letters, one at a time. They can see the blanks where the letters will go, so they know how many letters are in the word they need to guess. When they guess a correct letter, I’ll add it to the board in every place it appears.

I’ve also introduced a few changes that make it pretty different from hangman:

  • Players can only guess three incorrect letters before the puzzle fails and the fail state happens.
  • Players can participate in a skill challenge to gain “free” guesses, ie, a wrong guess doesn’t count towards the three-guess limit.
  • Players have to reach consensus about the solution before I’ll take it as the final solution. If they’re wrong, the puzzle fails and I start the fail state.

Notice this means we have to decide the fail state ahead of time and be ready to deliver it if they fail. Try to telegraph this ahead of time. Some examples are listed in the encounters below.

If you’re running this puzzle like I did, you can’t be afraid to deliver the fail state if they don’t solve it in time! So don’t use this puzzle to hide information the group needs unless you’re going to deliver it in another way later.

Creating these encounters

There’s a few reasons your players might encounter a word puzzle like this one. Think about what the players are pursuing and the forces that might stand in their way, then choose an encounter from the list below that matches one or both.

Player Goals

  • Decipher an ancient spell or forgotten text: Run Encounter A
  • Piece together a map or journal entry that has been destroyed or damaged: Run Encounter B
  • Crack a code or decipher an intercepted message: Run Encounter C

Faction Goals

  • Corrupt a ritual or holy text: Run Encounter A
  • Tell members about a hidden place or secret meeting: Run Encounter B
  • Pass sensitive information through hostile territory: Run Encounter C


Skill Challenge Basics

The mechanical purpose of the skill challenge is to roll a certain number of successes before reaching a certain number of failures. The creative purpose of the skill challenge is to encourage each player to think about how their character approaches different problems and explore different aspects of their character’s personality.

  • Each player must attempt a roll at least once before any player can roll again.
  • Each player can attempt a roll based on a certain attribute only once (one INT roll, one CHA roll, one STR roll), no matter what skills they’re using.

When a player makes an attempt, they’ll tell the table which skill they’re using to make the check and justify it to the DM (if necessary). They’ll describe how they’re using that skill to address the problem or help the group work towards a solution, then make their roll.

Word Puzzle Skill Challenge

Players can roll on this skill challenge to gain “free” guesses on the word game, which won’t count towards their three failures if they guess an incorrect letter.

  • DC 15: Can guess a consonant
  • DC 20: Can guess a vowel
  • DC 25: Point towards a blank , the DM must fill that letter and other blanks with that letter

Win states and fail states vary in this challenge based on which encounter you’re running. Check them out below!

Using The DnD Printable Puzzle

All you’ll need to do to use this DnD printable puzzle is decide on your solution. I have some advice in the encounters below about what’s easy and what’s hard (at least for my groups). Once you pick the word, fill in the upper left space with a number of blank lines for letters to go in later.

For examples, if your word is DUNGEON, you’d write: __ __ __ __ __ __ __.

As your players guess letters, you’ll fill these in with their correct guesses.

Encounter A

A moss-covered monolith in the middle of a forest glade has been slashed and blacked with unholy runes. What do they say?

How I Set Up This Encounter

I chose this puzzle encounter because the players were on the trail of a cult that they were interested in for a few different reasons: someone they knew was a member, they cult had information they needed, etc.

But this cult faction they were tracking didn’t really know the group was onto them, so their goals weren’t opposed in a traditional sense. The cult just wanted to go on corrupting this part of the forest to make it more attractive to their demonic master.

I figured that in this case, a violent confrontation didn’t make sense. At the same time, I knew the characters were interested in the cult’s corruption ritual and more information about how to find them. A puzzle encounter fit the bill perfectly, and since the ritual the cult was using involved arcane runes, I decided to make it a word puzzle.

I decided to just tell them the win condition, but to telegraph the failure by telling them the monolith was visible unstable and cracked, and tampering might break it completely. They knew the cult tampered with demonology sometimes, so they figured that would be a bad thing.

Here’s a version of this puzzle I used when players were investigating an ancient monolith that warded a certain glade in the forest. The monolith had been defaced and corrupted by a cult of demon worshippers to make the area unholy instead of holy, and the group needed to figure out how to reverse it before it attracted more demonic attention and possibly a full-scale invasion.

Encounter Design

  • Reward for Success: If the group solved the puzzle, they’d discover how the cult had performed the corruption ritual AND learn how to reverse it in the future with a simple skill check.
  • Consequence for Failure: If the group didn’t solve the puzzle before getting three failures, they’d destabilize the monolith and a small demonic incursion would happen, breaking the monolith in the process and making the ritual irreversible.


Solving the Puzzle

Here’s the skills my players used most often to solve this puzzle:

  • INT (History, Religion, Arcana). This is straightforward, they were just remembering things or deducing how the ritual worked from what they already knew.
  • WIS (Survival) and INT (Nature). I liked this approach! The player (a ranger) drew conclusions about the order and force with which the runes were drawn by inspecting the moss and lichen growing on the monolith, like an herbaceous blood spatter analyst.
  • DEX (Sleight of Hand). The rogue used a thin-bladed knife to clean out the runes that had been caked with mysterious red-black liquid and make reading them easier. I didn’t say there was a mysterious red-black liquid on the monolith—that was his idea.

The solution to my puzzle was LITHIC INVOCATION, which I’d rank as “medium” in terms of difficulty. It has a lot of repeated vowels, so an early vowel success can blow it wide open. Not everyone knows the word “lithic”, though, which can balance it somewhat.

If you’d like to use this encounter, I recommend printing the sheet or using it in your VTT so everyone can see the letters they have used and how far they are in the puzzle.

If the players fail, you can throw a difficult demon encounter at them using the encounter table. There’s nothing fancy about this fight: the demons are trying to slaughter the group and everything else in the area and will fight to the death.

If you’re using the table below, use the Monster Manual shadow demons and imps.

Avg Lvl# PlayersShadow DemonsImps

How I Resolved This Encounter

My players did not manage to solve this one in time! It was a close call, but they were at two failures and gambled on a “G”. I had the demons emerge from the monolith, shattering it in the process, and attack the party.

After a tough fight, they were victorious. I moved the plot forward by describing how the monolith appeared to be permanently damaged, and would spit out demons randomly. This would draw the attention of the cult, who would investigate who had tampered with their ritual, therefore moving the players and the cult closer to open conflict.

Encounter B

After a run-in with drow spider riders, the party recovers a map of a secret meeting place. Can they talk the surviving drow into helping them piece together the location?

Encounter Design

  • Reward for Success: If they solved the puzzle, it meant the characters had pieced together the map and knew exactly where they could ambush their quarry, AND they had discovered a secret route that allowed them to get very close without being seen.
  • Consequence for Failure: If they failed to solve the puzzle in time, the drow’s rescue party found them and engaged the party immediately, while sending a scout back to warn their quarry and preclude an ambush.

Here’s a different version of this puzzle encounter I used when my players managed to recover the map to a secret meeting place from an enemy agent. This drow cavalry rider had been wounded in the fight and the map was badly damaged (thanks, fireball). The group had to piece together the scraps of map and use some clues written in the drow dialect of Elven to find the meeting place and ambush their quarry.

How I Set Up This Encounter

I chose a puzzle encounter for this challenge because the wounded drow cavalry rider didn’t pose much of a threat. He was really badly hurt and the party could kill him at any time. The group wanted to interrogate him for more information, but he wasn’t in his right mind and wasn’t making much sense.

So the players needed some information to make sense of the map scraps they had, and the drow wanted to conceal as much from them as he could while preserving his own skin. We played this one as a social encounter, with the clues the group gained from the conversation acting as clues. We used the word game as an abstraction of what clever characters could put together from the conversation.


Solving the Puzzle

Here’s the skills my players used most often to solve this puzzle:

  • CHA (Deception, Intimidation, Persuasion). They were able to talk a lot out of this guy by making threats and bluffing about what they already knew.
  • STR (Athletics). There was some “old-fashioned knuckle interrogation” that went on, too, though I usually prefer to gloss over anything gnarlier than that (my table rules).
Avg Lvl# PlayersDrowDrow Elite Warrior

The solution for the puzzle I used was SUSSURANT CONGREGATION, which I was pretty proud of but that the group guessed right away. There are too many S’s in it, and once they guessed S, there was only thing it could be!

If they had failed, I would have used the encounter table on the right to generate an appropriate drow encounter for them. In that case, the drow would have tried to rescue their captured comrade and then incapacitate the PCs and take them as slaves using paralyzing poison (as drow do), only killing characters who were more trouble than they were worth.

If you’re using the encounter table, use the Monster Manual drow and drow elite warrior.

How I Resolved This Encounter

Since they solved the puzzle quickly, I had the party find out exactly where their quarry (a drow separatist with a bounty on his head) was hiding out in the Underdark. I also had them discover a secret tunnel that let out right over his head, so they could launch a surprise attack.

It’s important to me to accompany an information reward with a “+1”, something actionable that’s related to the main thing the party wants, to propel the plot forward. I knew they wanted to ambush the guy, so I gave them the advantage they needed and kept the game moving forward.

Encounter C

A forbidden spell written in on a scroll of suspicious leather… should the party try to open it and uncover the awful power hidden within?

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