Here's the situation. There's a locked door that prevents any further progress into the dungeon. There's a keyhole in the door and a message basically saying that the key needs to be wished for.

In the room with the locked door is a wishing well. Each person is limited to one wish, and successive attempts just inflict damage to the wisher.

It's very straightforward: someone needs to wish for the key and it will appear, and they can unlock the door. The intent was not to present the players with a complex puzzle or anything time-consuming. The intended effect was that all but one player get a free wish, but one person has to sacrifice their wish to get past the door (and later be rewarded for their selflessness).

But, as always, things did not go according to plan. Without even discussing the key, each character went ahead and made their selfish wish. Okay, no big deal. You can brute force the door or just break it down with an axe. But my players are terrified that something awful will happen if they destroy the door, even though I have done nothing to indicate this.

They've tried wishing for the key, but since they all expended their wish, the well just damages them and doesn't work. So they've now set their mind to solving this puzzle that doesn't exist. They are trying to find deeper meaning in the words on the door, trying to word the wish more precisely, taking unnecessary damage all the while. The last 30 minutes of our session was spent on this.

Now I'm all for causing a little party frustration. But it's starting to drag on. I want to explain to them that they've simply exhausted their wishes and need to find an alternative way to get past the door. I want to smack the fighter over the head and tell him to just bash it down. But that's not the way I roll (heh, heh).

I would provide subtle clues - the magic aura of the wishing well fades, or something along those lines, but the damage has already been done. They've inspected the well and the door and I've already told them that there is nothing different about it.

How can I get my players to overcome this obstacle without just telling them outright?

Note: I appreciate all answers specific to this particular situation, but I would also like more generic tactics to deal with unintended obstacles for when this inevitably happens again.

Here's what ended up happening: I provided a few more subtle clues that additional wishes weren't going to do anything. They decided to give up and go explore the rest of the dungeon for missed secret doors. By that time, the enemies on the other side of the door had heard the PC's and had plenty of time to plan a surprise attack and coordinate a tactic to corral the adventurers into a sacrificial pit in the next room. So just as the players started to move away, the door exploded inward in and battle broke out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Afraid of the door? Bust through the wall. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Feb 22, 2013 at 8:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why is there such a puzzle in this dungeon by the way? Is it a "worthy-only" lock of sorts? Is it just a random test of personality? Is it really an obstacle? Knowing its ultimate purpose might help with suggestions. \$\endgroup\$
    – leokhorn
    Feb 22, 2013 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ To those questioning the design and intent of the trap/obstacle, I have to add a disclaimer: This was originally an extremely boring puzzle in a pre-written campaign. In the original the only wish that the well would accept is to create the key. It would have been a 2 minute forgettable bump in the road. I just tried to spice things up a little on short notice. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Feb 22, 2013 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ To those saying they should enlist the help of an NPC, I agree with you that its a good idea and the players have thought of that one. But our current setting is in a place where no man has ever tread, sealed off for eternity, only accessible to these epic characters with the direct help of a deity. So bringing in a civilian would be rather... impossible :) Even the deity herself cannot enter, or else she would reach down and smack some smarts into these guys! \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Feb 22, 2013 at 18:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the answers everyone. I'm going to play it by ear (with a few backup plans) with these suggestions in mind. Our next session is tomorrow and I'll accept an answer after then, depending on what happens! \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Feb 25, 2013 at 13:35

10 Answers 10


The Good Approach - Subtle hints were the best way

You mentioned subtle clues, but really that is the best approach. So, they inspected the well and the door, and you already said there is nothing different. Maybe there is something on the wall that hints, perhaps scrawled by previous failed adventurers "Generosity is to be praised." "Each only gets one." Etc.

If they really don't want to bash the door in, maybe they should backtrack get an NPC minion and have the minion make the needed wish.

If you want to be even more subtle, they notice something about the layout of the whole room that reminds the bard/wizard/cleric of some ancient Rune and they should go back to talk to an expert who can then subtly (or not so subtly) hint about it talking about the Rune referring to self sacrafice or something like that.

Speaking of Bards/Clerics even PC Bards and Clerics make a decent way to deliver hints. The Bard remembers some lore suddenly (especially if he hasn't made that check yet), for a Cleric the deity might literally give them a bolt of inspiration. I think this is a distinctly inferior approach, but it may be better than the next options I list.

Slightly Less Good - OOC hints

There is nothing wrong with giving the occassional oblique out of character hint. "Sometimes you just need to take the risk of a trap being there."

Deus Ex Makes it Go Away

This is substantially less good, but you can always make the problem almost literally disappear. A massive earthquake destroys the door, and collapses the well.


This is a last resort, but its not necessarily a game breaker to just say openly, "This didn't go the way I had planned, why don't we try this scene again." And if they haven't figured it out, drop some further hints this time around.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the option of hiring someone to wish for the key. Finding an honest person who will resist temptation to fulfil their contract is a great puzzle! \$\endgroup\$ Feb 21, 2013 at 23:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ben Finding an NPC who will scrupulously follow a promise or contract (like, "when you are given the opportunity, ask for the key") is an interested challenge. Arranging the agreement so they will fulfil it, and maybe so they won't know they're agreeing to give away a wish, even more so. It may also be a good use of charm or geas. The moral dilemma to the party if that NPC has a terminally sick relative, even more so… \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22, 2013 at 0:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Very true, but its enough to keep an honest person honest. Plus its really hard to structure a wish that will benefit you in some meaningful way, kill the pcs, and not kill you in the process. So...just make sure you don't bring a lawyer for your NPC. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22, 2013 at 4:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well depending on what the PC's wished for, the npc could ask for it all... It would make a nice punishment, they were all selfish so now no one can keep his wish. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lyrion
    Feb 22, 2013 at 7:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ NPC idea is good. They could find someone trustworthy such as a paladin type who would not break his promise to wish for the key. Be careful of abuse if the players realize anyone can wish for anything until the key appears... \$\endgroup\$
    – leokhorn
    Feb 22, 2013 at 10:45

Puzzles with a single definitive answer like yours are problematic because they completely break down if the players can't think of the correct answer. One solution is to not include such puzzles to begin with, but that is not helpful if you have already done it. In that situation, here's what I suggest:

Let the players be right.

When you need to solve a problem like this on the fly, take advantage of the fact that the players do not know what the correct answer is. The next time that the players give you an answer that seems reasonable, change your script on the fly and let that be the correct answer. As far as the players know, their answer was the correct answer all along.

Let's say that your players are tasked with solving one of Gollum's riddles: A box without hinges, key or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid. The correct answer is "an egg," but you cannot be sure that any of the players will think of this. You can be sure, however, that they will put a lot of thought into giving an answer that seems correct. Eventually, they might come up with "a mountain." When they do, let them be right. It might just save you an entire session of drudgery.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is SUCH an important point. Also applicable to any "Investigation" scenario. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22, 2013 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I definitely will do this, but they've spent so much time hemming and hawing that they haven't actually tried anything yet! \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Feb 22, 2013 at 18:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dpatchery: From my reading of your question, it seems that the players have already tried to get through the door by wording more specific wishes. Regardless of the details of your specific scenario, however, I would suggest that you listen carefully to what your players are planning and then improvise a solution that matches the idea they come up with. This is basically another instance of the famous "Yes, and" method from improv acting: follow along with what your co-actors are doing in order to make the scene better. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jakob
    Feb 22, 2013 at 20:26

One possibility: Since the entire party has proven to be selfish, whatever they wished for is revoked at once, and the key appears instead. Perhapws with some sort of note explaning that if nobody can sacrifice their personal gain for the good of all, nobody gets anything.

Could be a bit difficult to justify why that didn't happen immediately, but it should be possible to think of something (maybe it happens when they give up and leave the room/area).

In general, IMO the best way to deal with the players getting into a situation where they cannot go on as planned is to add something that allows them to continue but which is consistent with the scenario and not an obvious "cheat".

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like this idea. It'll fix the problem along with taking away their reward for not actually solving the puzzle correctly. And it'll make them think twice before going on a wishing frenzy next time. \$\endgroup\$
    – William
    Feb 22, 2013 at 12:00

Make failing interesting.

When I create puzzles or obstacles that the characters might have difficulty getting past, I think about what would happen if they don't succeed, and try to make that an interesting outcome as well. Success doesn't have to be the only way that a story progresses.

For your wishing well and locked door problem, perhaps since the characters succumbed to greed, they simply won't ever be able to get into that door without someone else's help. Even if they think to enlist the help of NPCs, getting someone honest enough to not take the opportunity to grant themselves a wish is probably an adventure in itself. The story's focus might now shift from getting into whatever is behind that door to living with / removing a curse that has been placed upon them by the wishing well.

Multiple ways of success

If getting past an obstacle is important to the progress of an adventure, you should create multiple clear ways of getting past it. If the PCs don't figure out or they botch your planned ways of bypassing the obstacle, and an interesting failure is out of the question, you should feel free to allow the players to succeed with something they come up with that's interesting and plausible, even if (especially if!) it's not something you had anticipated or prepared for.


Have any of your players attempted to replace their selfish wish in exchange for the key (they kept their receipt, right)? This seems to be the cleanest option. This means...

  1. a player returns their character to its original state
  2. allows a player to make a selfless act, as you intended
  3. receive the key and unlock the door
  4. and allow you to still reward the selfless act as you had planned

I would include some writing in the well below the water (hard to see) or some other hint (magical world, magical hints) to steer a player in this general direction.


If you are using a system and that system has an Intelligence or Idea or something similar have them all roll it -- they cannot fail the roll but don't tell them that! Then, you can say something along the lines of:

You realise that one of you should have been selfless and wished for the key. Now, it is too late. However, the door does not seemed trapped so you should be able to break through. Or maybe go through the wall. And in the background, you almost can hear Fate laughing at you. Best never mention this again, to anyone...

Then play this.


If you really want to speed things up, have the door open because all wishes have been exhausted and no key has been used. Presuming that much time has not passed you can curse the party with a simple effect that gives them a -1 to any roll involving being selfish as punishment. (The door was magical, so why not have it be a magical trap instead?) The door is open, the players may proceed, everyone learned a valuable lesson.

If they encounter another similar door, you can have it grant them a bonus, or erase the curse placed on them by the first.

If that fails, you have plenty of creative options at your disposal to help them proceed.

  • physically hidden door
  • magically hidden door
  • trap door to next area
  • further exploration reveals passage that was simply missed.
  • entrance of additional explorer (@TimothyAWiseman)
  • selfish wishes can be destroyed to create key in nearby room
  • demonstrating lack of selfishness may be key to opening door all along.
  • enemy breaks down door from other side, prepare for battle.
  • NPC guide appears on other side of door, haggard from navigating depths of dungeon, save this poor adventurer from starvation!
  • (Motivation) Mysterious crying can be heard from other side, you have to break through to save them!
  • (Motivation/Trap) Passage leading out of room seals with solid stone. Water pours in from ceiling. The weakest point in the room is obviously the door...
  • (Motivation/Trap) Passage leading out of room seals with solid stone. Far wall starts to heat up/ Produces wall of spikes/ Crushing trap.
  • Selfish wish, if actual object, is actually key to door.

To more directly the actual question posed:

To help your players get around an obstacle that you didn't intend, remove the obstacle while reminding them of their failure. This teaches them to be more careful, and also allows you to use the same situation to create more (purposeful) obstacles in the future at your leisure. You do not have to ret-con to do this, and may use more creative means to help them understand what happened.

The options for dealing with most of the obstacles (physical or otherwise) any player will encounter are backing down from it (avoidance/ignoring), going through it (solve/break), or going around it (creative solutions). Reminding your players that they need to take an action, and they have other options may be necessary to proceed.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great ideas here. There is a bad guy on the other side of the door. Maybe he'll get annoyed by all the noise and just open it for them! I also like the suggestion of a secret door leading to the same room. They haven't looked for one of those yet. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Feb 22, 2013 at 18:43

In this circumstance, it appears they wished for something selfish, realized they also needed the key, then someone wished for the key.

Give the person who wished for the key both the negative consequence of hitpoint loss, and the key. Later where this character was supposed to be rewarded for being "selfless", don't give them the benefit.

The simplest work around generally is the best.

  • \$\begingroup\$ They've already wished for the key and been denied (with the penalty) since they used up their wish; it wouldn't fkow story wise to have that work now..not without breaking the story..ok if it has to be done but in this case it doesn't. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben-Jamin
    Feb 23, 2013 at 18:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ben-Jamin, have they gone through their stuff? If there's a pocket, backpack, etc. that they haven't dug through, who says the key wasn't transported THERE when they first wished for it? If they have gone through everything, or you want a simpler storyline, I'd ask to take back a little bit of the timeline and go back to the first person who wished for the key, give the key to that person along with the penalty and the "don't be selfish" part. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Feb 23, 2013 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have they visited the latrine yet? Following @Pulsehead's idea, that's where I'd let them discover that the wish to have the key actually worked… \$\endgroup\$ Feb 24, 2013 at 1:03

To the idea of listening to what the players come up with next and that happens to be the right answer .. this also works very well for plot in general. Some of my best games came from party ideas on what was really happening being so much better on mine. Just dont do it too often or they might lose faith.

I would say alwasy be prepared to let the players fail at something (end of the world dungeons beware). So an evil guy takes over the country .. thats an interesting way for the plot to go.

I like the option for your problem, of reversing all the wishes the players asked for (as curses that can with some effort be removed) and just make the well a honey trap.


This question can be even worded in broader terms, namely

"What to do if the players end up in a (self-inflicted) dead end?"

Reasons may be many:

  1. (like you stated) They used up the only resource which had been essential for further progress (their wishes)
  2. They unintentionally destroyed the means to proceed (breaking a mirror needed to solve a riddle, for example)
  3. They simply don't have the means to proceed (only clue written in elvish - no one can read elvish)
  4. The players are simply stumped by the puzzle set in front of them (Gandalf in front of the Gates of Moria, though he got it in the end)

In any case, the party ends up in a situation where they simply can't proceed and could spend hours talking in circles, much to the frustration of everyone.

Retconning is definitely the last resort, because everyone at the table would be left with the feeling of having failed something, which they did, namely passing the riddle/door/trap.

As one of my predecessors said, do not insist on the 'correct' solution. Any idea which could get the players past the door should help.

  • Feel free to incur some slight penalties for their actions ("Okay. You managed to tunnel through the wall next to the door, but you can be sure now that they know of your presence.")
  • Or even reward them for lateral thinking. (There was a riddle with needing to measure an exact amount of time using two hourglasses - the easiest solution was to put one of them on the side for a given amount of time)

The 'Deus ex machina' doesn't even need to look like one. Actual situation was our party being stuck in front of the entrance because that riddle did stump all of us. Solution: The denizens of the dungeon noticed us loitering and tried to apprehend us, thus coming at us through said door.

In any case, good planning includes preparing for an alternate way to proceed whenever the 'intended' way doesn't pan out, for one reason or another. Better, to have several possible ways past a roadblock.


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