There hasn’t been a two page mini delve in a while. I know. I’ve actually been working on a dungeon for the WotC contest (ending tomorrow!), and the one page dungeon contest, both of which I will turn into two page delves eventually. But for now, here is one to tide you over. The map is my own handiwork, but was inspired by this map over at Dyson’s Dodecahedron (formerly A Character For Every Game). What is new and exciting in this delve? A lot! Continue reading
What would you say if I told you that there’s a centuries old Chinese puzzle that has limitless replay value, engages creative types, is appropriate for grade schoolers through adults, and that I’ve never seen this puzzle in a single D&D adventure, ever. Intrigued? Let me tell you about tangrams.
Tangrams are deceptively difficult puzzles in which you are required to replicate a given shape with a predetermined set of tiles. The tiles are as pictured: two large triangles, a medium triangle, two small triangles, a square, and a parallelogram. That’s the “official” tangram tile set, and they’re cut out of a single square. Every single tangram in existence can be made with a set of these tiles (unless, of course, it’s a “double tangram” puzzle for the experts among us). One of the greatest advantages to tangrams as a D&D puzzle is the fact that it requires players to use a different part of their brain – normally puzzles are logic based; tangrams require spatial reasoning, and they will be very rewarding to the creative types in your group. They’re also tactile – instead of staring at a piece of paper, unjumbling words or filling numbers in blocks, players get to fiddle with something. They may even put their cell phones away! There is no special knowledge or level of education required to solve a tangram. You are simply given a shape’s silhouette, and then must make that shape out of the tiles.
Note that the picture at the top of the article belies the puzzle’s difficulty, because you can see each tile; an actual tangram looks more like this:
And even that may seem simple, just looking at it – you can sort of imagine where each piece goes… until you actually have the tiles in front of you. Then you begin to stare at the misshapen puzzle you’ve tried to piece together, and then at the leftover pieces you can’t seem to find a place for, until you are forced to admit that, yes, there is a bit of a challenge here. Especially if there’s a clock ticking…
Before I get into the When and How, I should also note that tangrams come in all levels of difficulty. In trying to convey the challenge presented in a tangram, I don’t want anyone to think that they’re TOO difficult. There’s a tangram for every person, every group, and every one is solveable.
So let me spell out a scenario for you: The characters enter a huge vaulted room, easily 50 feet high. The floor is polished marble, and grim statues line the walls, each one pointing at the center of the room where a massive obelisk stands. The obelisk has [insert number of characters here] sides, as smooth and cool to the touch as the floor. In each face of the obelisk, there is a single depression – a setting for what you can only assume is a massive jewel. And beyond the obelisk, on the other side of the room stands a set of double doors, 20 feet high, made of cedar no doubt, by the smell of it, and bound by adamantium. The chill emenating from the area, as well as the faint crackling of arcane energies warn would be intruders from trying to break them down.
The PCs are meant to find [number of players] jewels, and with each jewel will be a tile set. Once they have all the jewels set in the obelisk, each face will display a depression of a tangram silhouette below each gemstone. The players will then have to solve the tangrams and place them in the depressions to open the door. Going about it this way gives each player a puzzle to solve simultaneously, and makes retrieving the puzzle components as much fun as solving the puzzle. After all, the gemstones and tiles don’t have to be in the same dungeon, let alone on the same continent. How badly do the players want to see what’s on the other side of the door?
Of course, that’s just one way to play it. You could have just one tangram that the group solves together, using a more advanced (or even a double) tangram and a timer. “Not done yet? Take another 10 ongoing damage everyone….”
The drawback to tangrams is that they require equipment. You’ll never see them in published adventures because an author cannot assume that a group has a set of tiles lying around. (Though, really, they could just include one printed on a sheet of paper to cut out…) But you, you’re the DIY type, and lucky for you, it’s easy to make a tangram tile set. I made one in about 10 minutes while watching TV. Do it during a full length drama show, and you’ll have a set of six. For this project, I used the old standby – crafting foam. If you’ve never used it, crafting foam is about 1/8 inch thick, flexible, and about the size of a sheet of paper. It comes in all different colors, and can usually be found in the kid’s crafts section of your art supply store. I got six different colors, one for each player, and so the pieces couldn’t get mixed up. Drop each set in a sandwich ziplock baggie, and you’re good to go.
I was going to type out the cutting directions, but it turns out someone has already done that for me. Thanks Google! You can check out the cutting directions here. I will say that I was tempted to go bigger than 4×4 (the sheet of foam could have EASILY handled 8×8, after all), but it turned out that 4×4 was a perfect size. So stick with that.
Now that you have your sets of tiles, where do you find the puzzles? Well, as you might expect, online is a good source. You also might want to buy a book of tangrams to have handy, like this one or this one over at Amazon. You can also get them as decks of cards. All these options are really cheap, and that’s just a sampling. You can get books upon books of them, at all levels of difficulty. (They are sometimes also called “tangoes,” so be sure to include that in your search.)
I would suggest sticking with a theme (“animals” comes immediately to mind), though you could also simply do abstract shapes. Believe it or not, it’s actually difficult to reassemble the basic square, especially your first time around. No matter what you try, be sure to include them in your next game. The creative types in your group will thank you!
Have you ever seen or used tangrams as a D&D puzzle? How did they work out?
This entry is part of a series wherein I show how to use Hirst Arts molds to make new dungeon accessories for your 3D terrain of choice. If you don’t have any Hirst Arts molds, that’s no problem. At the bottom of the article you’ll find a bunch of ways you can use the accessory as the centerpiece for an encounter or story arc; you don’t need the actual accessory to use the ideas. So feel free to read the whole article, or just zip to the bottom, and get your creative juices jumpstarted!
I don’t remember where I got the idea for this accessory, perhaps it just popped into my head one day. I wanted a dungeon feature that the players could interact with, something like a puzzle, a trap, and a toy all at the same time. The wheel is what I came up with. The finished wheel rotates on the base, so players can actually turn the wheel to where they want it. What you put on the wheel and what it’s used for (or triggers) is completely up to you, but at the end of the article we have some ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
The only Hirst Arts mold you need for this project is #45, and you’ll have to cast it four times. In that mold there are three pieces that fit together into what I call a “corner pillar.” Pictured below are these three pieces.
You will also need a wooden disc. You can get these at any craft store, usually in the wood crafts section. The disc I’m using is 2” in diameter. Because the disc is so large, I’m going to make the base 2 blocks high instead of 1 – otherwise, the disc would completely overshadow the base. If you want a shorter base, I’d recommend a 1 1/2” diameter disc so the finished product looks proportional.
Choose any one of the three “corner pillar” pieces to be the base for the wheel. I wanted basic, so I’m going to use the one on the left, and I need four of that same piece. Since I’m going 2 blocks high, I’ll also use four of the ones on the right. Glue the four pieces together so that all the “pillar” sides are facing out.
While that’s drying, get a 1/16” drill bit, and drill a hole in the center of the wooden disc. Then, mix up some gray paint, and paint your wooden disc the same color as your stone tiles. You could also leave it looking like wood by staining it. Now it’s time to make an “indicator” for your wheel. You know, something that shows the players what the wheel is “set” to. Wire is perfect for this; I’m going to use a paperclip for my wire, and needlenose pliers to bend it. There are two ways to affix your indicator to the wheel. The first is to glue the indicator to the base, making it immobile. The second is to add a loop to one end of the indicator, so that it swings around the center axis, making it moveable. Generally, you would add a moving indicator as a secondary indicator. Using two indicators for the wheel allows you to add complexity to the wheel’s “setting,” and therefore add to the complexity of the puzzle. Finally, if you don’t want to mess with bending wire, you could also have a fixed point in the room (like a pillar) act as a fixed indicator.
At any rate, if you want an indicator on the wheel, bend the paperclip into an “L” shape, making sure it fits on the base with the wheel.
Add a loop to one end if you want the indicator to be moveable. Make sure the loop is big enough to snugly accommodate a straight piece of paperclip (which will be the wheel axis). If you’re going to have a fixed indicator on the wheel, simply glue it to the wheel. (You may need to prop it up with something so that it doesn’t fall off the base before the glue is dry.)
Let everything dry overnight.
The next day, you’re going to take your 1/16” drill bit again, and drill a hole down the center of your base for the wheel axis. Cut a piece of straightened paperclip (or other wire) so that it will stick out of the hole and poke out of the wheel just a tiny bit. Get some glue on the wire, and stick it in the hole.
While that’s drying, think about what you want to paint on the wheel; symbols, colors, something else. I’m going to paint some runes on it for the PCs to decipher. (If you want to do runes, and aren’t sure what to use, check out our article Ancient Runes in Ancient Ruins.) You can paint as many things as you want on it, but keep in mind the number of combinations that will be possible – especially if you’re planning on using two indicators. I’m going to keep it fairly simple, and use four runes.
The great thing about this setup is that you can make more than one wheel to put on the base. It’s a very versatile and reusable dungeon accessory.
Once everything is dry, your wheel is ready to use!
Here are some ideas for using a wheel:
- Paint a compass rose on it
- Use four colors to indicate seasons – yellow=summer, brown=fall, white=winter, green=spring
- For extra mystery, just use ticks (lines) on the wheel
What turning the wheel does:
- Opens or closes certain doors in the dungeon
- Shifts the PCs from the Shadowfell to the Feywild and back to the material plane
- Changes the terrain in the room or dungeon
- Sets the destination of a nearby portal
- Awakens a monster
- Shifts fate
- Changes a character’s sex/personality/race/class/player
There are really too many ideas to write here. Basically, the wheel is a complex triggering mechanism; think of it as a series of levers, but cooler. Anything you can think of to turn on, off, up, or down can be done using the wheel. What are some of your ideas?
Just this past week Sly Flourish posted a D&D tip on Twitter suggesting the use of Strimko puzzles in adventures by simply swapping out symbols for the numbers. That got me thinking: what to use for the symbols?
The first, and easiest, idea that came to mind was simple shapes. Shapes would work. Squares, circles, triangles, stars, diamonds, hexes…. whatever. However, in my mind, the purpose of using something other than numbers is to move away from the familiar in order to help players suspend their disbelief as they play. Using shapes is probably too familiar to most players, and wouldn’t have the intended effect.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized the need for some sort of rune, or unfamiliar symbol to really immerse your players in the world you’ve created. So what are our options?
You could use letters from the scripts presented in the Player’s Handbook. Pages 24 and 25 have sample alphabets in Dwarven and Elven. Wizards also posted a Draconic font in one of the forums. These would work great, especially if you’re adventuring in a more “recent” dungeon. Link 1 Link 2 Unfortunately, there’s no font (that I could find) that you can install on your computer. Also, if you’re looking for something that the characters are not familiar with, these won’t do. If you want them to come across writings so old that none of them even recognize the alphabet it’s written in, you’re going to have to find something else.
You could use the webdings font. Ok, to be honest, I just threw that in there for a laugh. Please don’t subject your players to webdings as they approach the ancient portal of power.
You could design your own symbols. My symbols never turn out to my satisfaction though. Perhaps you’re more artistic than me. And, if you want to use the symbols more than once, you’ll run into the “it’s not a font” problem.
So what are we left with? Well, there are actually strange and/or arcane alphabets in our world that we can co-opt for our games. It’s just a matter of picking the right ones.
This is the first one I came across. Most people familiar with the Hebrew alphabet are familiar with the alphabet presented in the right hand column of the chart. However, there are far more ancient scripts for the language that would fit perfectly into a D&D setting. Fonts
If you want something that looks more like a long-lost elven script, Sanskrit is definitely the way to go. It has the flowing, curvy style presented in the PHB, but at the same time is distinctly different. Just be careful to use letters that look different enough to not be confusing to your players. Many of the Middle Eastern scripts would also fill this role well; Farsi, for example. Font
Tifinagh is an African alphabet in use today. It’s a great one to use for an ancient dwarven script. It has the same blocky, angled look as the PHB font, but again, is distinctly different. I could easily see “modern” dwarven evolving from this. Font
Thanna is another good all purpose script for human or other races’ writings. There’s nothing difinitive about it, which in my opinion, is its strength. Telling the PCs that they’re not even sure what race of people wrote what they’re trying to read adds an air of mystery. Font
Ok, now with that to whet your appetite, I’m going to be kind, and point you to the motherlode. After all, you’re going to need a separate script for every single one of your dungeons, caves, and ruins, right? Of course you are. And I am certainly not going to duplicate a bunch of work that has already been done. So here it is: Omniglot.com is a treasure trove of all sorts of alphabets, both living and dead, and even some undeciphered scripts! I’m going to go ahead and assume you know how to use google to find your own free fonts, or, in the case of the undeciphered scripts, how to use an image editor.
UPDATE: I have added a free download of 17 “rune” fonts to the downloads section. Check it out!
Share your favorites in the comments!