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I'm DM-ing an upcoming campaign and am considering banning or nerfing spells like Comprehend Languages because they can be used to instantly solve potentially interesting problems like reading an ancient text.

I'd prefer to avoid banning spells and would like some advice on techniques for working around (better yet, working with) these kinds of spells that could make otherwise interesting puzzles and challenges boring.

I've gathered that concealing the information in something other than the literal meaning of words (e.g. ciphers, steganography, Thieves' Cant) would defeat the effect of the spell. This either makes understanding the language essential to solving the problem or it renders the spell utterly useless, so it seems suboptimal to me.

How might I design a puzzle such that Comprehend Languages (or a similar spell such as Tongues) would provide an advantage without outright solving it?

The puzzle that inspired this question was from a D&D podcast where an ancient text was on a pedestal and the text itself basically gave away the solution to the puzzle once translated. The DM forgot that this particular spell existed, so the Wizard used the spell and totally thwarted the puzzle. Perhaps this puzzle was intended to be solved with a Rosetta Stone or some other form of problem-solving and inferences. Perhaps it was an alternate script of English text intended to be inferred through frequency analysis and other clues. The intended solution could have been something along those lines, but since I'm not the one who thought up the puzzle and I don't remember any other details, I don't know what the DM had in mind.

I'm hoping to be able to create a similar puzzle without either nullifying the spell or requiring its use. I'm not totally sure if I will use this in my campaign, but I want to keep it in my DM toolbox.

Side note: I am working in D&D 5e, though this question could apply to other systems with spells in the same vein.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the focus of this question is too broad - there are an arbitrarily large number of ways of doing this, especially when framed as system-agnostic. You're effectively asking players to invent puzzles, which is not really a specific question. I'm suspicious that your answers will mostly be criticisms of the question, like Robert's \$\endgroup\$ – Lovell Apr 26 at 17:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Basically what you ask is: "There is a broad spectre of interesting puzzles (here's a not very clear example, but you've got the idea), there are also a couple of spells which probably might make solving these puzzles too easy. What puzzle do I need to design in order to solve this problem?" \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 26 at 17:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Beefster could you please also add, how this "ancient text on a pedestal" puzzle was supposed to be solved? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 26 at 19:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Iter I think those cents would be better put to an answer, that's where solutions to the problem should be :) \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Apr 26 at 21:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the Comprehend Languages example in specific: during one of the adventures I DM'ed, the group stole a book from a wizard so they could invoke a special ritual. However, while fleeing the place, the book fell down on the floor and its pages spilled out, getting out of order. The puzzle then was to read the pages - by means of the spell - and then, by checking the context of the pages, trying to put the thing back in order so they invoke the ritual themselves. To do this, I made a prop - the book, and 50 out of order, yellowed pages of text in Diablo's unique font, already "translated". \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Apr 27 at 14:41

13 Answers 13

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This is a gating problem.

In the design of games occasionally we like to put bits of the world behind gates, be they literal or metaphorical. The upper floors of the tower are behind a locked door... and now we look for the key. A dungeon-area is flooded and inaccessible... until we learn to breathe water or redirect the river. Clues are hidden in the foreign-language journal... until we comprehend languages.

You've noticed, though, that certain spells can shortcut the gates we put into games.

That's fine. In fact that's good. Barriers in adventure design should be used to pace narrative, to keep squishy parties from too-hard regions, to tantalize upcoming adventures! But once they're surpassed, their remaining would just introduce a new chore into the world. If the key to the tower's upper floors is a one-use key, requiring a new fetch-quest each time we want to go there... we simply won't go there.

Work with your gates. Before your party gets there.

For every gate you put into your adventures, you've got to look at your party composition and resources (friendly NPCs? Spell scrolls?) and figure out the lowest level at which the party could get past that gate. Flight? Toxic air? Going to another plane? Getting past a guardian-monster?

Then evaluate whether that's when you want your party to get past there. If not, you need a tougher gate. (Unfortunately, 5e makes it very difficult to come up with mid-tier gates.)

In your case, it means that "ancient text" is not a significant gate. But (as Robert Pain VanZant's answer describes) "text is literally hidden" or "meaning is coded" or another method may achieve the same gate. Or maybe you need to look to another gating method, based on your party's composition.

(Don't get rid of all the gates your party has a solution to, though: it's good to feel character choices being organically rewarded by making some things easier. Just be aware, when you design, that you're not actually gating for that character.)


See also AngryGM's Megadungeon Monday: Gating which probably is the source for half of my examples up there ^^ =D

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    \$\begingroup\$ I particularly like this answer for pointing out that problems with known solutions are not always a bad thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Apr 27 at 15:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Some problems are not there to completely block progress, but instead to consume resources. Solving a language comprehension problem by casting a spell creates a new problem — now the caster has one less spell slot available. Unless they use the rosetta stone clues and figure it out without using up that spell slot. This particular type of puzzle can be especially useful if there are multiple instances of language to comprehend, all using the same rosetta stone (the CL spell only works for one text, so say goodbye to many spell slots if you take the easy way). \$\endgroup\$ – Erics Apr 28 at 4:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erics: In this case, comprehend languages is a ritual, so anyone who can ritually-cast the spell and has learned/prepared it doesn't even have to expend a spell slot, just spend an extra 10 minutes casting it. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 28 at 7:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast in that case, put a time constraint on the gate (time sensitive quest objective, attacking dungeon denizens, or similar FIAT solution). Then, you can either consume resources interpreting, or consume them beating the time constraint. \$\endgroup\$ – GOATNine Apr 29 at 14:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd go even further, and say that I'd sprinkle in a few extra situations where they need that spell, once they have it. It makes the party feel smart, awesome, and prepared for having the solution at hand. (Though of course, it could very easily be overdone) \$\endgroup\$ – Gloweye Jul 19 at 17:48
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Rather than punish your players, reward them for using creative means to solve problems.

A character intentionally spending spell slots to solve a problem you have presented is the intended chain of events during play. You're describing the exact use case for this spell.

If the puzzle is just "decipher these ancient writings to find the answer," they should know that as soon as they decipher the script. Short of making it a cypher, there is no reason they shouldn't understand; and why shouldn't they? They're spending valuable resources to solve problems you have presented to them.

As for how to counter an auto-solve, I would have the ancient text hidden around the room and require additional checks to find them, and maybe split it up in such a way that they must reorder the phrases correctly. Or, similarly, you could have the walls completely covered in ancient text, and they are trying to discover the specific excerpt they need.

Just remember; it's not DM vs players. It's our job to make sure they have a ton of fun, and feeling like you just wasted a spell slot for nothing is not fun. Allow your players to feel clever and successful, and if they solve the problems too easily, just add an extra step or two.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @beefster I think the issue here is that a puzzle that can be instantly solved with comprehend languages isn't really a puzzle. At least, not a good one that is worthy of being put in a campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 26 at 17:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Robert Pain VanZant I think you allude to a solid answer without stating it directly. Ciphers provide more interesting challenges than just an ancient language. Simple ciphers such as the Caesar cipher can be solved by hand and are presented by newspapers in the form of recreational puzzles. More complex ciphers could reasonably by something that could overcome but require more than a low level spell slot (possible answers to that might include searching for the key or at least hints to the key or require the services of a real cryptographer.) \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Apr 26 at 17:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I would have the ancient text hidden around the room and require additional checks to find them" Where is the fun in that? It just leads to players rolling perception checks any time they enter a room, looking for “anything strange”. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Apr 27 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was just giving alternatives that simply removed the auto-solve factor he was curious about. The question has been heavily edited since I submitted my response, also. Also, just sayin', players should generally be looking around every room they enter, lest they be subjected to traps or set upon by hidden enemies. In this case, though, it wouldn't be Perception to find the text; that's merely looking around. You're talking about Investigation, as you move around objects to search a room. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Pain VanZant Apr 27 at 17:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ "A character intentionally spending spell slots to solve a problem you have presented is the intended chain of events during play. [...] They're spending valuable resources to solve problems you have presented to them." - In this case, comprehend languages is a ritual, so anyone who can ritually-cast the spell and has learned/prepared it doesn't even have to expend a spell slot, just spend an extra 10 minutes casting it. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 28 at 7:50
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First, make sure this is central to your game

If deciphering these texts is not a crucial and repeated plot element, the effort of such a change is not worth it. If it IS a crucial and repeated plot element, make sure you have worked out how it will affect the other aspects of the campaign (see below), as well as the overarching reason for these puzzles - where did the texts come from, why they are there, and how does that connect to the story arc?

Next, make sure your players are on board

This is a Session 0 issue. "Ok guys, the campaign I am planning is mostly based around the exploration pillar, and your party will be doing a lot of searching for ancient texts and solving puzzles. The combat aspects are things like temple guardians keeping the texts from you or perhaps a rival faction trying to locate and decipher them first, and the social interaction aspect will be interacting with NPC's to get the resources you need to solve these puzzles. Does that sound fun?"

If everyone agrees that they like the premise and would like to proceed, then introduce the changes:

"Because solving these puzzles is the central challenge of the campaign, there are a few modifications to spells and items to keep things challenging. You should keep this in mind when choosing classes and spells..."

Finally, consider your options

What options you want for making Comprehend Languages and Tongues useful without being panaceas depends on the backstory you are creating. Read and digest nitsua60's answer, and follow the link to the AngryGM post. How you wish to "gate" the areas that these puzzles provide access to should relate to your players, their chosen classes, and the overall backstory of the campaign. Will you be asking the players to solve these puzzles as players (such as ciphers or rebuses they have to work out for themselves) or as PC's (meaning interacting with the world through skill checks, role play, and resource use)?

Here are a few ideas:

1. Comprehend languages works as written, but the puzzle language is figurative

Comprehend languages allows you to "understand the literal meaning of any spoken language that you hear", but "doesn’t decode secret messages in a text or a glyph".

Comprehend languages gets you the literal meaning, but your players are after the figurative meaning, and it is hidden in a cipher, rebus, visual symbology (a la Dan Brown), or cultural allusion. For example, when the players use Comprehend Languages to read "The key is in the well where the fifth sun was born" it is helpful, but now they need to use other sources to work out that the "fifth sun" refers to the fifth Pharaoh, but his birth could be the palace where he was born or where he was crowned, and then they have to track down each one.

2. Comprehend languages works as written, but the puzzle language is physically fragmented

The page is missing a section (stolen by an adversary). The archway has lost a stone (hidden elsewhere in the complex). The inscription has been worn away (some sort of restoration magic or time travel is needed). Here, the puzzle is figuring out what is missing, and how to restore it, so that Comprehend languages has a complete text to work on.

3. Comprehend Languages is splintered

If your idea for the campaign involves a culturally heterogeneous past, you could have Comprehend Languages work as a number of different unidirectional spells. For example (using Greyhawk), you might need a "Translate Ancient Suel to Common" spell distinct from a "Translate Old Oeridian to Baklunish" spell. And you might need a "Detect" spell to even know which language you are being presented with. In this case, the texts themselves are not puzzles, but rather the players will be spending resources (inks, gold) and social interactions (who has the version of the spell they need and is willing to provide it) tracking down each variant of the spell they need in order to accomplish the task at hand.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this other than the very last option presented, which just seems to advocate adding pointless complexity to the game. \$\endgroup\$ – RevanantBacon Apr 26 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RevanantBacon Well, it is pointless complexity unless the complexity itself IS the point - the fundamental organizing principle of the campaign. But definitely not as an add-on, no. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Apr 26 at 21:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RevanantBacon It depends on how you layer things. I ran a campaign like that once. Nobody could figure out how the old translation spells from previous eras worked, so each era had it’s own Comprehend Languages that would only work on languages from that era and the one immediately before it, resulting in needing multiple spells to translate particularly ancient texts. The players actually rather enjoyed it, but it was also a very exploration-focused party. \$\endgroup\$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Apr 27 at 2:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ #1) "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.", "Temba, his arms open.", "Shaka when the walls fell." \$\endgroup\$ – bcr666 Apr 28 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @bcr666, how about something more classical: "Ymir's skull", "whale-road", "feeder of ravens", "wood's bane". \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Apr 29 at 23:39
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In a glance at these answers, no one seems to be highlighting what I believe to be something very important to answer this question:

Consider that this puzzle (if the people who made it meant it to be a puzzle) exists in a world with Comprehend Languages.

There are your intentions as the DM (make an interesting puzzle to solve) and there's the intention of the people who made it in the first place. If it is meant to be a puzzle or gateway by the in-world people who made it, of course Comprehend Languages isn't going to work as an instant solution. The people who made it would want to find a way to nullify it or make it a non-starter.

Comprehend Languages is going to lose something in the translation. Barring obscured or torn text.

Way 1: Shibboleth.

An earlier answer covered this, but the most major thing to have is a shibboleth:

A shibboleth [...] is any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another. Shibboleths have been used throughout history in many societies as passwords, simple ways of self-identification, signaling loyalty and affinity, maintaining traditional segregation, or protecting from real or perceived threats. In modern English, a shibboleth can have a sociological meaning, referring to any in-group word or phrase that can distinguish members from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group. It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.

This can be that metaphorical language refers to something specific within the culture - like a particular animal represents a Goddess or something.

In which case it's not the specific words that matter, but the meaning behind the words, and to find that you will have to either study or maybe look around for clues to help you learn what you need to figure that out.

Way 2: The words themselves in the original language are as much a part of solving the mystery as the translated version of things.

It can really be anything, but the simplest one is the first letter of each word (or line)...

Indolent
Smart

Wend
Heal
Action
Teach

...you need.

But in Spanish, it would be (through Google Translate):

Indolente
Inteligente
Encaminarse a
Curar
Acción
Enseñar

They might mean the same thing (no idea), but now the first letter is different because of a different language.

There are a thousand variations on this (like rhyme scheme being important), and if it's in a different alphabet, that's going to be tougher. But if the text gives you a clue to what the cypher will be, you then have to turn it off or get a member of the party who doesn't have Comprehend Languages on to write the relevant letter(s) from the original language on another paper. If it's a simple thing, it won't be impossible, and both the meaning of the text (which you get from Comprehend Languages) and the original is important. As it gets tougher, it might have to be something you have to get an expert or someone who actually knows the language (or sister language) to help with.

Protip to look at: The character of Daniel Jackson from the TV series Stargate SG-1. He can read almost anything, but even when he has the translation, it's never the only mystery to solve.

Further Edit: For a pictorial version, take a look at the episodes 'Wolves and A Door' & 'A World Between Worlds' in Star Wars Rebels. A perfect example of a Shibboleth, and a key.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Deborah Ann Wol used a letter-puzzle in her live-streamed game at D&D Live 2019 youtu.be/R5wvWChXreM?t=1990. With her usual party, so she had some idea of their puzzle-solving abilities, but the party still needed a couple hints (provided in-game by the party using their resources to get hints) - this is a pretty essential thing. If your party doesn't think of the even the general sort of approach you had in mind to solve your puzzle, they could be stuck indefinitely. TV shows can have the characters solve puzzles whether the audience sees the solution or not, but D&D isn't like that. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Apr 27 at 4:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey, look who is back! 😎 (love the quality of this answer it has stuff I can use in a few weeks in our campaign) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 29 at 19:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes TV shows and other fiction are just a start, not an end. It's a way for you to look at puzzle-making idea generation that isn't dependant on Comprehend Lang NOT working. Functionally, players do get stuck--the answer to how to help with that is a whole other question (which would be a long answer in itself). This question does not speak to that issue (which is one I would like to answer on as well). But yeah, in fiction you can make puzzle-solving move at the speed of the plot...definitely worth pointing out! \$\endgroup\$ – Erin Thursby May 2 at 7:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Thank you for the compliment! Glad is useful. \$\endgroup\$ – Erin Thursby May 3 at 3:01
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You are free to ban them as a DM, but reconsider the puzzle

Comprehend Languages is a tricky spell. There is a reason why the Five Torches Deep 5e hack replaces it with a a substantially nerfed version called Lexicon. Along with spells like Polymorph and Wish, it is considered one of the most overpowered spells by quite a few DMs I've seen.

It is designed to be an instant solution, when players encounter a language no one in the party knows. Its "imbalance" heavily depends on the genre — D&D 5e is mostly about combat, exploration, and social interactions (the "Three Pillars" of D&D), while deciphering ancient languages seems more like an archeologist's work.

As a DM, you are free to ban any spell you like or add new spells in your own homebrew campaign, providing you notify the players in advance. There are other divination spells like Commune that might give clues to the puzzle, but not the solution.

Another way is to make the puzzle a little more complex. Just reading the text is boring — you have to make right conclusions from it. Connecting the dots and making conclusions is what makes the game fun for investigative-type players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Spot on my gut answer. As an example of how to make the puzzle more complex, one possibility is for the text to spell out the solution... If one knows some cultural detail long lost to history. Or if one knows where the old palace that was razed and buried years ago used to be. (Also +1 for mentionning 5TD) \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Apr 27 at 0:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Btw, since you mention the 5TD version, I'd highlight how it was nerfed. Just as an example (Mainly that it's 3rd level and now has explicitely GM discretion on what can be read it seems.) \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Apr 27 at 0:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @3C273 I'm not sure this is really important for the answer. 5TD has only 5 levels of spells instead of 9, so we can't just compare spell levels. The point is — OP is not the only one who wanted to limit Comprehend Languages somehow. The rest is just details. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 27 at 8:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just make sure all the players are on board before banning a spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Apr 27 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Michael this is what I'm saying in 3rd paragraph, isn't it \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 28 at 8:26
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In 5e in particular, and D&D in general, magic at a certain level solves certain sets of problems.

In T1, things like "I am hungry", "it is dark outside", "I need to get down this pit" and "what does this book say" are solved.

In T2, "We need a camp in the wilderness", "we need to cross this chasm", "we need to get over this wall", "we need to get to the other side of the world in a week" are solved.

In T3, "we need to get to the other side of the world in 10 seconds", "We need to go to hell and back", "how do I keep this evil artifact safe", "where is the macguffin", "I need to be in two places at once".

By T4, it almost reaches "I need to change reality".

The kind of problems you can confront your players with are restricted by what magic can bypass. This means that you need to produce different kinds of problems.

Reading an ancient text requires (a) knowing that spell, (b) touching the text, (c) a 1st level spell slot, and (d) time to read it.

All of these are costs, some of them modest. Different parties will find it easier or harder by a few orders of magnitude, so you shouldn't rely on problems in the scope of the tier being solved or not; bypassing such a problem should be optional to the challenge, at least in the short term.

It is "fair" to have a book that must be translated for a T1 party. Some will solve it in-place immediately, others may have to take the book to a sage, find a scroll, or something else. All both possibilities should be considered by the DM making the problem gated by the translation of the book.

You can also become aware of the features of the spells. Comprehend Languages requires touching the writing; if the book with the text is behind a force barrier, or the text is written high up on a crumbling wall, doing this is going to be a challenge in itself.

Lastly, you can also realize that most D&D expects the PCs to succeed. It is ok for a PC to pull a rabbit out of a hat and solve a puzzle! As they progress in level, you'll be used to what kind of rabbits they have to pull out of hats. Just make sure that not every puzzle can be solved that way.

One approach you can consider is a overwealming the party with problems. If they are spending a 1st level slot on solving this puzzle, they have 1 less slot for the next problem. A situation where the players succeed at every problem they attempt, but there are too many problems to solve them all, and that you plan for solving some of the problems but not all to produce an interesting result, could be worthwhile.

If your plot isn't linear, and solving this puzzle is optional, then players expending a 1st level slot and a spell known to bypass it works, as does the PCs with no such resources ... for now.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "most D&D expects the PCs to succeed." That's a fairly modern invention, isn't it? \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Apr 27 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @weckar No? Barring tournament modules, which where intended as deathtraps so you could have a winner. I guess people who took their D&D inspiration from those modules as well. I havenpt quite read every DMG, but close. Deathtraps become default (and learned) or rare (hence presumed survival) \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Apr 27 at 18:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting. I recall many creatures in D&D 3.5 having save-or-die effects with fairly high DCs. No additional death saving throws: you were dead. Struggle for survival, and the DM not being on your side, used to be main features and draws - at least in my experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Apr 28 at 15:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WeckarE. Usually at those levels, death ward existed. So instant death save failure was just a resource drain. Failing that, resurrection magic; again, a resource drain. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Apr 28 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Death ward is min/level, and only applies to one creature per casting. You need to know the effect is coming. Resurrection is fine, but loses levels. Plus, Death Ward doesn't do anything against other things that effectively kill instantly, such as petrification. It only deals with 'death effects'. Basically, unless you were playing with perfect information, death was something that happened often. You could not prepare for everything. \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Apr 29 at 0:44
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Change the problem so it would aid to figure out the text but not complete the challenge

You could tell the players the answer in an indirect manner, like a riddle, or give them a part of the solution and instructions on how to get the next part of the puzzle.

As a DM, you won't be able to think of all the ways a player might react to your challenge, and you should have the problem changed during play if the players choose to solve the problem in a different but possible way.

I'd say make it a layered challenge:

  1. Let them translate the text that is ambiguous and hints at more than on option.

  2. They might try one option and fail, so design the puzzle so that it won't be too bad if they fail.

    For example I designed a test in the form of 3 graves, within each a different NPC that wants something from the player. The order of tasks doesn't matter, but according to the order or if they were successful, the other NPCs need different things from the player.
    One NPC wanted 3 flowers to be placed on his grave in a specific order, so the NPC interacts with the player with a song (yes, I'm going to sing) with instructions about the task. Not too obvious, very fun, and the player might be so invested in the song that he'd completely miss the instructions. If he does, it's not terrible, because he has 2 other NPCs with 2 other ways of solving the challenge. One is a fight and one is a riddle.

    You might want to include references in your text that would require Religion or History checks, or maybe metaphors that would require Nature checks. Try to let the players play their strengths with multiple ways to understand the text.

Remember, it's about the fun and challenge.

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There are four pieces of advice I give other GMs when I hear them complaining about stuff like this.

You should not actively circumvent player choices.

Spell slots in 5e are at a premium, as are known spells for most classes. In other words, unless you’re a Cleric or a Wizard, picking a given spell means you are actively giving up other spells, which affects the power balance of your character.

Comprehend Languages, in particular, is a choice that makes you give up combat versatility and/or guaranteed useful social RP benefits in exchange for a very binary (it’s either nearly essential or almost completely useless) exploration focused benefit. Even the other breaking spells though have such trade-offs. Invisibility, flight, and teleportation being useful are super dependent on the campaign setting and the rest of the party, polymorphs are only powerful if you need a tank or in the unlikely case that you need a good disguise but your opponent is not able to check for magic, and Wish, while game breaking in some cases, is entirely dependent on what the GM allows (at least it doesn’t cost XP like it used to though).

When players pick up these spells, they are making an active choice because they think they will be useful. The point of the game is for everyone to have fun. How fun is it to pick up a spell that you think will be useful, giving up on other things in the process, only to have it be completely useless?

Given this, I not only don’t try to avoid direct one-shot solutions, I go out of my way to include them when I know the players will have a way to trivialize them (provided of course that they are not critical to the story). Not huge numbers of them of course, but at least enough that the players don’t end up feeling like they made poor choices.

You must think like the in-universe creators of the traps and puzzles when creating traps and puzzles.

Magic is the most blatant thing here, you need to remember that it exists, and design your traps and puzzles around that assumption.

However, you also need to apply some common sense. If some ancient civilization built a tomb, would they really leave behind detailed step-by-step instructions to get inside? Of course not! If any info exists about getting inside or circumventing the traps, it will be at best figurative, probably requiring an understanding of the ancient culture itself to understand, and at worst fragmentary to non-existent, all because when it was created, that language was commonplace, and therefore writing down proper instructions would have enabled anyone to get in.

You need to think along those same lines when designing puzzles and traps. The party might get lucky and stumble across a figurative back door left by the designer, but in most cases they won’t be so lucky, and will have to figure things out the way the designers intended, which will almost certainly not consist of just casting a specific spell (though if it was a meritocratic society run by mages, the ability to cast a specific spell might actually make sense as a key).

Important puzzles and traps should take multiple steps to solve and should also have multiple possible solutions.

As a really simple example, years ago I did a dungeon crawl campaign where the party eventually ended up in a room with only one door, but which they knew was not the end of that particular path. While I did not explicitly list the options, they had three ways to possibly proceed that I had planned for. They could backtrack and go around (they had been mapping the dungeon so far, and it was not difficult to see from the map that there was at least one other path to where they were going that did not involve this room), they could go about finding the secret door and then just force it open with brute strength, or they could decipher the ancient text on one of the walls and puzzle out what the poem (actually Lewis Caroll’s How Doth the Little Crocodile) indicated for them to do. Given the party composition, any of those was a valid solution, and the option of backtracking would have been valid no matter what the party composition was. In practice, they actually ended up accidentally triggering the third option (it required them to pour water into a set of small golden bowls shaped like crocodile scales, and the wizard accidentally flooded the room (thus indirectly filling those bowls) when they were fighting some enemies that showed up part way through the party debating about how to proceed).

Unless you are designing the campaign knowing ahead of time what the party composition is and having a good idea of how they are likely to play, all major story related puzzles and traps should be built like this, and should also ideally follow the Three Clue Rule (which my above example technically did not), but you should not actively prevent creative or accidental solutions.

The reasoning behind this is twofold:

  • Requiring multiple steps makes it much less likely that the players will trivialize the puzzle with a single spell. It also makes it feel more significant, because it requires a larger time investment to solve it.
  • Providing multiple possible solutions helps ensure that the party will actually be able to solve it, independent of how they built their characters and independent of how they approach the problem. It also makes it more likely they will be able to solve it without having to come back to it, which helps keep the story moving forwards.

Conversely, unimportant and optional puzzles and traps should be simple, and it should be possible to trivialize them.

Put simply, if something does not matter directly to the story and only exists to provide some loot, then it should usually take as little time within a session as realistically possible. Allowing players to trivialize stuff like this by simply being appropriately prepared is a good thing, because it provides validation for their choices and it minimizes the time that gets taken away from actually propelling the story forwards.

This is essentially a non-binary application of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s Gun. If something is completely irrelevant to the story (and not important for setting the mood), then it should not be included at all, if something is critical to the story, it should absolutely be included and have significant time devoted to it, and things that are only somewhat relevant to the story should only receive as much time as is needed to account for their relevance.

Would you, as the GM, rather have half the session spent with the party trying to figure out how to get a +1 longsword for the fighter because the puzzle is to complicated for them to figure out, or instead have them spend that time working on moving the story forwards? Unless you are a particularly adversarial GM with a (very bad) players vs GM mentality, you almost certainly would rather see the story moving forwards. The same is generally true of players as well, they tend to prefer to actually keep the story moving instead of sitting around figuring out a puzzle to get a possibly trivial item. The difference here is that the GM knows they are wasting time, while the players may not.

Avoiding situations like that is important to help keep the players happy and engaged, and one of the easiest ways to avoid such situations is to make the complexity of puzzles and traps directly correlate with their relevance to the story.

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Three options

In my experience you have three options to handle such situations: Ban, ignore or embrace

Banning is the cheapest solution

Yet effective, just banning a possible problem solver is not very creative. In my games I handled it more with the "Yes, but"-approach.

Ignore the problem

If you know your party can solve problems like a chasm with a Fly spell, don't give them such problems to solve or at least don't account much effort on those situations. Don't forget: You don't have to prepare puzzles that can be solved by your party in an instant.

Embrace it

This is actually a tough one and needs sometimes a lot of work in preparation. In my games I handled skills and abilities that are able to solve problems, with mini-games, small puzzles or logic games, that were designed around those abilities. In situations that could normally be flat out solved by a single ability check I just declared, that those rolls don't solve the puzzle but gives ie. a hint. A successful check, spell or other ability just lowered the difficulty of that puzzle/mini-game.

For example: You have this ancient text you could decipher either with a spell or with a History check (or something comparable). As Comprehend Languages is a spell specially designed for such situations, it should give the players a bigger advantage than a success on an Intelligence check. But you still don't have to give them the deciphered information. You could give them the translated text as a handout in a very strange font that is incredible hard to read. So the text is translated, but the players still have to decipher it personally. Alternatively you could have a text (because you know that your wizard is able to cast Comprehend Languages pretty early... at least in most cases) that is a puzzle itself... A strange poem that has a secret hidden message for example.

I had such a text in one of my campaigns. It was the classic trope of strange verses that gave some hints how to find the McGuffin. At first they had to decipher the text... but the parchment was ripped apart and partly scorched, so they could understand the text, but still had to put it back together... and then they had a puzzle text. I literally printed a text in a handwriting font, tore that handout apart and scorched the pieces. Than I gave those pieces to the party... they hated me a little bit when I said "...and you find this in the ashes of the fire place..." and shove that pile of half burned mess over the table. But after they solved it, they actually liked that puzzle.

Tho I wouldn't recommend to use that with a player group that is bigger than 3-4 players. I did it with a rather large group and it was a little bit tedious for some, because you can only keep 2-3 players busy simultaneously while the rest has to watch. So think about adding some side activities the rest can do while the wizard player together with the rogue are solving that puzzle. Maybe let the rest have a small fight during which they have to guard the puzzle solvers.

And you can do such "Mini-Games" with literally everything. I once had some 1 player solo-adventures with a single rogue and every trap was a small logic puzzle rather an ability check. It was plenty of work and a literal nightmare to prepare but it was awesome to play.

TL;DR: Give your players all the abilities, but adapt your puzzles to their skillsets. Let them feel an advantage, that isn't really one. As a DM you know (or at least should know) what your players are capable of. Design your puzzles with that in mind. Comprehend Languages cannot right out solve a puzzle, you just have to design your puzzle around that spell. Of course, it's a limitation of what you can do as a DM to give your players a challenge, but isn't that what DMing is all about?

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D&D is not a game where players expect to have to use frequency analysis to translate unknown languages.

Puzzles in RPGs are hard to do well. There is no reason the puzzle-solving skills of the character should match the skills of the player. The guy playing the big dumb barbarian might be an expert at this kind of thing, while the guy playing the genius wizard might not have a clue. So, who solves the puzzle, and how? Many of the players might not even want to try, because they know they won't get there first.

In an RPG, trying to figure out an ancient language would usually be done with some kind of Linguistics roll. If the translation solves the puzzle on its own, then the puzzle is no more than a dice roll. And making the players translate it themselves is only a good idea if every member of the group is into that kind of thing.

Here's an example of a language-themed puzzle that I used in a homebrew campaign:

There are twelve carved tiles scattered around a dungeon, including: A slate tile carved with a wolf, facing right. An electrum tile portraying a man with an eyepatch and a raven, facing left. A bronze tile, etched with a man with a great axe and a crown, facing outwards.

There are four tombs in the dungeon, each with three slots you can put the tiles in, and poetic clues written in an ancient script, each indicating two figures from Norse mythology and the one who is buried there, which gives a clue as to which tiles open the door. The players can try to translate the script with a skill check (or by casting a spell). The higher you roll on the skill check, the better your translation.

An example of a correct translation, with lower rolls giving progressively worse answers: Ere the great wolf cracks its chains / and slays the wisest of the gods / we shall not see the like again / of he, the mightiest of lords.

The translation gives a useful clue, but does not instantly solve the problem. If the players don't know Norse mythology, they can make Knowledge rolls to get more hints.

On top of this, I also made it possible to 'cheat' on the puzzles, such as by tunnelling through certain weak walls, and I put a couple of tiles in the correct places already, meaning they might make their own intuitive leaps in the absence of a translation. ("I bet the picture of Thor goes with this picture of the Midgard Serpent...") I put in multiple traps for punishing incorrect solutions so that a trap-disarmer could be useful (without being a necessity). I added an ancient prophecy about the PCs to justify why the puzzle exists in the first place.

After all this work on my part, one of the players wrote down the translations and the descriptions of the tiles they'd found. He then solved the puzzle, using knowledge and skills his character probably wouldn't possess, while the other players sat around doing nothing. Like I said, puzzles in RPGs are hard to do well...

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Give your players an advantage by letting them change the problem.

My guiding principle for designing challenges is the OSR-style: "No obvious solutions, many possible solutions, solvable by common sense." The easiest way to do that here is to make Comprehend Languages open up new possible solutions that still take work to do. Then it gives the players a significant advantage: they can choose the solution that best fits their abilities.

As an example: the players need to translate some hieroglyphics carved into a cave wall. There is a pit in the way. If someone already knows the language, they can translate it right then; you're rewarding them for having a specialist skill. If they have Comprehend Languages, they can't use it yet, because they can't touch the wall yet. But there's several ways around this:

  • They can find a way to cross the pit, touch the wall, and cast the spell.
  • They can carefully copying the hieroglyphics onto a piece of paper, and then touch the paper.
  • Using other information in the dungeon (perhaps a transcription into Common?) they can find a way to pronounce the hieroglyphics, and then use Comprehend Languages on someone reciting it.

All of these present different challenges to the players: crossing a pit, spending time as a resource copying the hieroglyphics, or aggregating information from across the dungeon. But they can choose their approach, making Comprehend Languages valuably without breaking the puzzle. They also don't need it, either. If they don't have anybody knows the language or the spell, they can find a local scholar who does know it. Then they either have to transcribe the text and bring the paper out, or safely bring the scholar to the text.

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Decide what the purpose of the ancient text is. Obviously, you want the players to be able to read the text in some way. As someone mentioned before they either need a rosetta stone (quest to search for a mcguffin), or a person that can do the translating (quest to find person), or a spell (quest for a scroll, or "good job preparing, wizard!") or as a combination of 2 & 3: use speak with dead on a corpse that knew the ancient language.

In any case, someone knowing comprehend languages bypasses a single quest which you can make up for later. Or maybe the rest of the party has to hold of some bad guys without the wizard's help while he is reading the ancient text. Or the room starts flooding and the party has to find a way to stop the flooding (or ceiling slowly lowering).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to our stack! Please take the tour to learn more about how we operate and you can visit the help center for more information. We do have expectations here about supporting answers and I'd recommend reviewing that and updating your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 28 at 18:30
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Comprehend Languages only lets you understand what the text says. It makes no guarantees about whether that text is relevant, complete, accurate, or authentic.

For example, historians have found and translated many texts from ancient Egypt that mention their trade partner Punt. None of them bothered to explain precisely where the land of Punt actually is, and we still don't really know. At the time, everybody knew where Punt was so there was no need to explain it. The same is true for the recipe the ancient Romans used for concrete. It was fairly impressive even by modern standards, but was common knowledge at the time so nobody wrote down the exact recipe. Only in the last decade or so have we been able to figure out how they made it. Perhaps your ancient text is similar. It made perfect sense at the time it was written, but practical use of it requires some sort of additional knowledge that isn't included. Your party learns that to break the magical seal on the door they need a swallow's tailfeather. But what does that actually mean? An African or European swallow? The text itself isn't enough to solve the puzzle.

Perhaps your BBEG was here before the players. They knew the scroll held the secret but couldn't decipher it themselves so to buy more time, they stole it and replaced it with a fake designed to send the party on a wild goose chase. Translating the document is not enough. Can your party detect that it's a forgery? Or perhaps it's too difficult to forge, but could be subtly altered to change the meaning in a hard-to-detect way. It's not hard to change a "3" to an "8", a "-" sign to a "+", or "H2O" to "H2O2". The BBEG remembers what they changed and can adjust accordingly, but will the party discover the deception before they brew a potion using that formula that is now highly toxic, or cast the summoning spell at the wrong time of day and summon a monster instead of the gatekeeper?

In one game I played, the party had to reclaim some sort of McGuffin that was stolen by the BBEG and kept in a vault inside a heavily-guarded fort. We located the architect that designed the fort and stole his sketchbook. Inside were drawings and construction plans for the fort, which we used to plan a stealthy Ocean's 11-style heist. Having the plans wasn't enough, though. The sketchbook actually contained three different floor plans for the second floor, but there wasn't any indication which one (if any) was the version used in construction. The staircase we were planning on using either opened into the second floor's servant's corridor or into the guard corps' mess hall, which made planning a bit difficult. When we got to the fort we noticed the exterior window placement didn't quite match the drawings either. Like any good set of architectural plans, the builders skimmed through them once and just sort of winged it from there. Was this purely a cosmetic change to the exterior, or was there an additional room there that isn't on the plans? Going out of our way to steal and decipher the sketchbook gave us a distinct advantage (and was completely unexpected by our GM), but to our surprise it wasn't sufficient to trivialize the encounter. It merely changed the particular challenges we faced. A frontal assault meant we would have had to prepare for anything, but we'd be pushing forward as a team. Our carefully-planned heist meant we controlled several variables and neutralized some problems that our particular party was ill-equipped for, but every inaccuracy or vagary in the sketchbook meant a surprise complication that required an improvised solution with minimal supplies and party members frequently working alone, out of their element, and without communication. One of the most enjoyable parts of that storyline was the instant when the party went from fully believing that we had outsmarted the GM and nerfed the entire encounter, to suddenly realizing our stolen information wasn't as valuable as we thought it was and it was too late to change our plans or back out. It was glorious - but stressful - fun.

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