I once tried to solve the “albatross puzzle” and I hated and loved my friend for one and a half hours. It was magical, and I wanted to give that to my players: a horrific, memorable, and nail-biting ttrpg puzzle.
“You enter a huge circular room chiseled from the mountain rock and the door behind you closes shut, disturbing the sand floor. The air is dry and heavy, pressuring your lungs. A single sunlight enchantment shines a girthy beam onto five 10 feet statues encircling a blank stone tablet. They depict a king with a broken crown, a scholar with a torn book, a priest with a shattered scepter, a smith with a snapped hammer, and a soldier. Across the room, there are second stone doors in the wall that is carved into beautiful scenes featuring people worshiping a cat.“
Upon investigation, the party realizes they can’t leave the room by any means—any displacement or teleporting magic is suppressed by the divine energy. The second set of doors has no handle nor keyhole and cannot be opened or broken into. The worshiped cat is featured in many different forms: as normal, with wings, with three heads, and with three tails. Religion knowledge reveals it is the goddess of Death, Shalakh’Thar, the end of all things and the keeper of the Balance. The statues brim with divine magic.
When someone approaches the tablet, the following text starts inscribing on it:
“Long ago, five mortal men wanted to cheat Death. The first was the king who wanted to rule for eternity. He asked his trusted scholar about a god-summoning ritual. The scholar wanted all the time to learn and improve and thus became the second. He asked a priest for help, and the priest, wanting to be in the everlasting service to the people, became the third. He was sure the ritual was connected to an artifact, so he asked a smith for help. Poor smith wanted an eternity to earn riches and thus became the fourth. Smith heard rumors of such an item and asked his friend soldier for help, who wanted nothing more than to enjoy his earned glory forever. And thus he became the fifth.
Three years later, having discovered the secret ritual, all five men summoned Death and tried to command her.
She killed all but one, the soldier, who she made immortal.
The statues contain fragments of their owners’ consciousness and will answer your questions with ‘no’ and ‘yes’.
Tell us why the soldier was spared, and we shall spare you.
Answer correctly, and enter the Temple of Death.
Answer wrongly, and enter her domain forever”.
Keeping the Pace
The party can ask any yes-no question to any statue and when they do, one of the 60 dashes from the ceiling’s edge crumbles and disappears. If all questions are asked (all dashes disappear) and no answer is given within minutes, the statutes attack.
In case of analysis paralysis, you can drop a couple of dashes to remind the party that the time is dire. They are in Shalakh’Thar’s mercy and She truly has benevolence only for the quickest.
Another option is to have one of the statues come alive and attack the party, cranking up the tension and breaking the lull but not without a hefty consequence: when defeated, the statue can no longer participate.
And if you had a really slow session, set the time to 25 minutes and let the numbers drop while imaginary sand starts to fill the room. Every 5 minutes roll a die and submerge one statue into the depths of the sand—obsolete and mute for the rest of the encounter.
For the wrong answers, you can have a similar solution, having one of the five attack. And in case the answer isn’t specific enough, the tablet will write it so.
If players hit a dead end and start to lose steam, offer an Arcana/Religion/Investigation check for the exit doors. With the right incantation/prayer to the Shalakh’Thar, a hidden keyhole opens. The corresponding key is the hilt of the priest’s scepter which the statue holds. The party can get it, but not before all statues attack.
Death spared the soldier and made him immortal so he can protect the summoning ritual and prevent it from ever falling into mortals’ hands again.
When the answer is said out loud, the following text appears on the tablet:
“Fearing that the secret ritual is compromised and that one day someone will truly command her, Death killed four men in a flourish. However, before she struck the soldier he cried:
‘Please spare me, please Death and…and…and I will destroy any trace of the ritual. I… I shall kill all who helped us and erase the memory of it.’
‘This will be your only task, for eternity’, Death replied.
And thus the soldier became an agent of hers, a knight of Shalakh’Thar, the first immortal blade of the Balance.
You can grab the full PDF as well as the print-friendly version by subscribing to our newsletter.
Thank you for reading, choose your questions carefully, and I see you in the next one,
“Godly riddles are the test of the highest for those of the lowest, to see if their arrogance has dwindled.”Judd Heartsand, famous Tabaxi explorer and dungeon delver.