A great way to add spice and flavour to your campaign is to
include a riddle. While this is most true for fantasy, a good
riddle can work in other genres too, such as horror or even SF, and
characters who talk in riddles are great entertainment in any
story. What's more, riddles are a great way to give your players a
puzzle that engages their intelligence and imagination at once.
They have to use their brains, rather than just rolling for it, but
if the riddle is good, it won't detract from the story and make the
players think they are back in school.
Riddles are something that I personally do not find difficult to
create. I am aware, however, that many other people have difficulty
in creating riddles and other word tricks with which old sages or
talking doors can confound PCs. In this article I will outline the
techniques that I use for designing such wonders. If you are not
familiar with some of the more complex terms used, don't fret! Many
are things that you probably already know but have been given long
names and are only used in this article for clarity.
Start with the answer
Firstly, I find riddles much easier to make if you first start
with the answer. Always choose something appropriate to the
situation. For example, if you are just a few feet away from total
divine power and the answer to the man at the gates of heaven's
riddle is something like 'potato' then it kind of destroys the
moment! For most of the examples in this article I will demonstrate
techniques with the answer 'dark'.
Most riddles I find use certain literary techniques to trick the
listener's ear. Below is a list and applications of the ones that I
The techniques above work for both written and spoken riddles. Here
are a couple more that would work best only for written ones (i.e.
on a player handout).
- Semantic Field: A good start is to find a
group of words which are associated with your answer. For the
example 'dark' we could extract, black, blackness, void, fear,
light, evil, confusion, veiled, blind, shadow. These words can then
be used within the riddle to hint at the answer.
- Metaphor and Simile: Many riddles use metaphor
to mislead and distract the listener from the real meaning.
Metaphor is comparing the solution of the riddle with something
else which is unrelated, for example 'I snuff the day' compares the
darkness to a 'candle snuffer'. Simile is even more common than
metaphor, when a direct comparison is used. How many times have you
seen phrases like 'cold as ice' and 'hard as stone'. To find a
suitable comparison, think of some of the properties found within
your answer's semantic field and choose one to compare. For my
example of 'dark' I could pick out it's blackness and say something
like, 'as black as coal' or for 'void' I could say 'as empty as
- Metonymy: Similar to metaphor it is the
substituting of the word for something which it is a part of, or
something which is a part of it. Some examples are 'smokes' for
cigarettes and 'the law' for the police, A lesser constituent of
dark could be 'shadow' and a greater constituent could be 'void' so
substituting them instead of the answer would give something like,
'I am shadow, I am void'.
- Synonym: This being different word or phrase
of similar meaning (very few words, if any, have exactly the same
meaning in every context). Synonyms of dark could be 'without
light', or 'blackness,' These can be used in the riddle to hint at
the solution. Thesaurus are full of synonyms and most word
processors will provide a built-in thesaurus.
- Rhyme: I know that most riddles rhyme as a
whole but there are other ways in which you could use rhyme to
confound by including a word that rhymes with the answer. This
little used technique can be used to great effect. For example if I
said 'I am similar to lark' for our example of 'dark', most people
think about the bird rather than the word itself thus throwing even
especially clever players off the scent.
- Onomatopoeia: A technique that is also little
used, this involves making the words sound like the noun they are
describing. This is a difficult one to apply to 'dark' since dark
has no noise, but for example if your chosen answer was 'a snake'
then you could lengthen any 's' sounds when reading the riddle out
to sound like 'hissing'.
- Literal Thinking: Remember the old 'what was
the drivers name' question? The Answer, of course being, 'What' -
it was a statement not a question. This technique often works well
with clichés (well known and overused phrases.) Taking our
example of dark and altering it a bit, 'I am as black as coal, what
am I?'; the answer being 'coal'. This works well because it is a
cliché.The following wouldn't work so well: 'I am as black
as dark, what am I?' the answer being 'dark', because it seems like
an odd thing to say. The last phrase is not a well known
cliché and so arouses suspicion as to why you chose those
words, making the literal thinking a bit too obvious.
- Personification: By describing the word in
question with 'human' characteristics you can imply the answer but
also add another dimension to what the listener imagines the answer
to be. This is best demonstrated by an example: 'I shy away from my
foe, the sun', not literally possible of course but it conjures
images of a dark warrior being defeated by the sun. This is a
technique which is used an awful lot in riddles, (the common use of
'what am I?' is of course a personification of the answer.) Which
brings us nicely onto:
- Opposites: Another way to add a clue as to
what the answer might be without actually telling it straight out
is to use opposites. Also if you make the entire riddle so that all
clues point to the opposite of the answer then include a line that
implies that the opposite to your conclusion is your answer, then
it adds another stage to the solving process. For example, if I
were to use the opposite of 'dark' which is 'light' then the riddle
could go something like this. 'Of the suns rays, I am born, I live
in beacons and guide many through storms, yet it is not with me
that your answer lies, it is my foe the one I despise.'
- Cliché and Collocation: A cliché
is a piece of language that has lost its impact through overuse,
like the old 'why did the chicken cross the road' joke. They are
usually looked down upon in most creative writing, but in riddles
they are abundant and very useful because of their familiarity.
Many riddles include incomplete clichés with the missing
word being the answer. In this form, simply because it is a
cliché does not mean it has to be obvious. For example, take
a look at the following (very well written,) riddle quoted by
What does man love more than life,
Hate more than death, or mortal strife?
That which contented men desire,
The poor have, the rich require?
The miser spends, the spendthrift saves,
And all men carry to their graves?
The answer is 'nothing'. This becomes obvious when we consider
each of the questions individually, man loves nothing more than
life, man fears nothing more than death, the poor have nothing
whilst the rich have everything (and so require nothing.) 'Nothing'
is so often used in such phrases it becomes possible to complete
the sentence by guessing at the missing word.
http://www.westegg.com/cliche/ provides a searchable archive of
clichés. Entering the example answer 'dark' into the
search box, it comes back with many results. Here is a selection of
the most appropriate (i.e. the most commonly understood ones). For
those that have never heard of the cliché I have included
what they mean in brackets. Note that when creating you own riddles
be sure to use references that you and you players will likely
- dark horse (a secretive person)
- a shot in the dark (a wild guess)
- to keep someone in the dark (to not let someone know about
One way to integrate clichés into riddles is to replace
the answer with a pronoun such as 'me' or 'I' (if you would like to
personify the answer,) or 'it'. For example:
'A shot in me is a long shot indeed,
Keeping someone in me makes for a secretive creed.'
Another way is as in the 'nothing' riddle above, where it asks
questions using the cliché as a clue. For example:
'What makes a horse, one of secrets?
What makes a shot one of uncertainty?'
A collocation is similar to a cliché but usually includes
only two words that just seem to go together well. For example 'Big
Mac', or 'Compact Disk'. These can be used in similar ways as
clichés, by substituting the answer with a pronoun or making
it into a question.
- Acrostic: perhaps you remember being asked to
write a poem by a junior school teacher where each of the first
letters of each line spelt out a word. For these, hints must be
given within the poem to suggest this, otherwise it's unlikely the
players would ever think of looking. An example for dark is below:
Duels of good and evil,
A fighter of good am I,
Revealed beside watched words,
King of the black night sky.
You can see the word 'dark' spelt out along the side fairly
plainly. Here I emphasised them with capital letters; obviously you
can make them as plain or as subtle as you like with emboldening,
capitals or other forms of highlighting.
- Anagrams. Taking the letters of a word and
jumbling them up to make new words, anagrams make great riddle
clues. It can be difficult, however, and sometimes impossible, to
make a new word from your clue (as is the case with 'dark')
especially if the answer is few in letters. Browsing the web, I
came across a
great site for generating anagrams. If you plan to use
anagrams, it may be worth extending the answer into a phrase so as
to gain better results when using the generator. Changing 'dark' to
'confusion', I gained 'focus in on' as an anagram. Once again, you
will need some kind of a clue that the solution is an anagram. In
this example, the second line gives such a clue. To help disguise
the rather strange sounding line 'focus in on', I have placed it at
the end of the verse. Many poems place their 'cryptic' lines at the
end, leaving the reader with something to think about and so it
seems less out of place to have our anagram here.
Caused through inorder,
Currently out of order,
'focus in on'
I'm sure you could think of much better ones given time but
hopefully you have the general idea.
Making it Sound Good
It is a good idea to make the riddle sound catchy and poetic.
This gives it resonance and charm and brings it to life so that
players will remember it. No one will remember a riddle like 'I am
similar to a lark, I'm blackness'. So once you have all the clever
bit sorted out, you need to dress it up a bit. The above literary
techniques and the following below can help make a truly memorable
- Alliteration, Assonance and Consonance:
Alliteration and assonance is when sounds are repeated in
subsequent words. Alliteration is when this is the first syllable
of a word, assonance is when it is the vowel sound in a word or
syllable (but not necessarily a rhyme – eg look and wood).
Just like rhyme, this repetition of sounds sticks in people's
memories and can provide a certain element of light heartedness to
the riddle as well as adding emphasis. Consonance is when words
have the same consonants but different vowels; the effect is again
similar to rhyme. The following riddle uses consonance rather than
rhyme: 'Black as black but like a lark, The shrouding sheet for
those that lurk.'
- Parallel Phrasing: This is simply where the
same words or patterns are repeated at intervals. For example, 'I'm
like a lark, I'm as black as black'
- Balanced sentences: Giving each sentence or
clause a similar length and amount of syllables, this can allow for
riddles that sound 'well rounded' and cohesive. The above example
is a balanced sentence whereas 'I am similar to a lark, I'm
blackness' is not balanced.
- Rhyme: This is the best technique of all for
sounding good and being memorable. Rhymes catch the ear and the
imagination more than anything and are very powerful. They can be
difficult to integrate into your riddle if you aren't the poetic
type, but with effort they are not impossible and can make it
really worthwhile. The "nothing" example above is a good example of
Getting Sentences To Fit
If you have trouble getting your riddle to fit into verses or
using the above techniques then try firstly altering the semantics
(word order). Many sentences can be written in more than one way
and often the 'non standard' word order sounds the most archaic or
poetic (see the third line of the example below).
'I am a fighter of good.'
'A fighter of good am I.'
'I am, of good, a fighter.'
Without going into too much detail, it is simply a matter of
splitting the sentence into chunks where the words are related ('of
good', 'a fighter') then rearrange them. If they make sense then a
new sentence is born. Note: be careful that the meaning is still
appropriate, as this may change dramatically with the altered
order. If the sentence length is the problem then extensive elipsis
(the removing of 'non-essential' words), can help. It is not
necessarily long sentences that convey a 'mythic' feel. After all,
medieval people, for example, were largely illiterate. You may be
surprised at just how much in a sentence can be omitted. For
example the above sentence without ellipsis should actually
'I am a fighter who fights against goodness in
The best way to cut down a sentence, again without going into a
lot of detail, is to just use common sense. Ask yourself, 'What
have I already established earlier or what will I establish later
in the riddle? Do I need to state it again in this line? Am I
stating the obvious?' and most importantly 'Would meaning be lost
if I missed out this particular word?'
Of course, your sentence may be too short. The good news is that
people often write with out even knowing they are missing words
out. Thus, simply identifying what is missing and adding them in
should make the sentence longer. We demonstrated that above.
You should find that getting a sentence to fit into acrostics,
parallel phrasing, rhymes and others a whole lot easier using
ellipsis and altering semantics.
Certain types of words for answers require different ways of
thinking for the 'solver'. An interesting example of the answer
changing the thinking process need to solve the clue is 'letter
riddles'. Here the answer is a letter of the alphabet and all the
clues imply that the answer lies within the object being described
rather than in the word for that object. An example for the letter
'e' is below
The Begining of Energy
The end of time and space
The start of Entropy
And the begining of every end.
and this one for the letter 'v'
With Thieves I Consort
With the Vilest in Short
And Savants Cannot Lose Me
For I Am The Center of Gravity
Before I start to analyse this I should warn you that the
language starts to get a little technical here.
The two examples above rely largely on cliché and
collocations of a certain type, specifically those that include or
have had a preposition somewhere in the sentence. For those of you
who've forgotten your primary school grammar lessons, don't panic:
a preposition is simply a word that states location or condition
relative to something else. Examples of common prepositions are in,
on, under, within, over, from, to, outside, inside, with, at, and
The reason why the above riddles don't seem to have many of
these words is because of elipsis (the ommiting of 'unneccesary'
words.) Look at the first example. The preposition 'At' can be
placed at the start of the first three lines, and as the second
word in the forth line, but the author of the riddle has decided
that 'at' was an unneccessary word and missed it out so that the
lines were more balanced in length (as well a neat example of
parallel phrasing). The good thing about these riddles is that you
can really use any cliché which uses a preposition (and the
letter of choice, of course), because the preposition will point to
the letter. The same goes for collocations.
Finally after you have created your riddle, it is vital to test
it on someone. Even if you think that it is blindingly obvious what
the answer is, still test it out. It is surprising how differently
people think. There is nothing more disheartening than to create a
riddle and then to see your party solve it in seconds or spend
hours and hours puzzling over it until you have to give them the
answer yourself. Getting the balance right here is never easy
– the only way to do it is to know your players, and to keep
Thanks for reading and I hope that this will prove beneficial in
producing some great riddles for your games.