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While exploring a dwarven/dwemer ruin in Skyrim, it occurred to me that the puzzle I was solving made no sense: a series of levers accessible from the direction of the entrance that each caused a wall of spikes to give way to the next lever.

This kind of system can't be used for defense, since the invaders have free access to the levers, though it could slow them down (slightly). But the broader question is: Assuming it isn't creating puzzles for adventurers to solve years later (or because a software company directed such), why would a society fill its factories, cities, fortresses, etc., with puzzles, (e.g., levers, switches, doors with puzzle locks)?

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Why else would eccentric millionaires fill dungeons with gold? – PyRulez Feb 20 at 2:59
From pokemon to skyrim this is a terrifying question... – wposeyjr Feb 20 at 3:05
It may have been a prison, not a fortress. You actually came from the easy side. – Kolaru Feb 20 at 15:19
Lab rats must wonder that as they go through the maze to get the cheese. Maybe you are a lab rat trying to get the gold. – Bellerephon Feb 20 at 18:27
In a fantasy setting with mindless creatures (undead, constructs, simple AI), such 'puzzles' exclude mindless creatures while being easy for intelligent creatures to pass. This is one fan theory about Skyrim's claw puzzles, keyed combination locks with the combination written on the key, rendering the combination portion entirely superfluous to anything intelligent enough to match up the symbols. – Jeffrey Bosboom Feb 21 at 21:55
up vote 154 down vote accepted

Perhaps the puzzles are not really puzzles to their creators. Imagine someone approaching a real-world house ...

  • First, find the key in the hiding spot on the front porch.
  • Next, release a lever to open the fly screen to reveal the real door.
  • Then insert the key in the lock of the door and turn. As all legitimate visitors know, you have to wiggle the key a bit to make it turn.
  • Turn a lever next to the the key slot to open the door. Turning that lever first would have no effect.
  • Try to find the light switch in the dark. Everybody knows that the switch will be next to the door case, slightly below shoulder height.
  • The final puzzle is the burglar alarm. To disarm it, find a box on the wall several steps after the doorway, open it, and type a passcode. With luck, the code can be derived from the birthdays on the wall calendar.

Completely logical, right? Only medieval dungeon crawlers would call that a fiendish sequence of puzzles.

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I hate it when I come home, make it past all the steps you outlined to get into my place, and then I forget to turn on the light, I get eaten by a grue because it's so dark, and I have to respawn all the way back at the office. – Todd Wilcox Feb 21 at 20:29
@ToddWilcox, a grue? Furry, four legs, one tail, whiskers, won't let you pass unless you open a can first? – o.m. Feb 22 at 6:18
@o.m. Oh.. You got one of those too ? You're lucky though... Mine insists on having his trout fresh. All hell breaks loose if it comes out of a can. – Tonny Feb 22 at 16:27
@Tonny, no, but two of my co-workers tell interesting stories. – o.m. Feb 22 at 16:35
your last bulletpoint breaks the flow, sicne it is describing a real security meassure. While the key by itself is defused by having a hiding spot for it, the disarming requires the knowledge of a code one shouldn't have access to. – Zaibis Feb 23 at 10:42

The key issue here is gaining access through solving puzzles. This could be because whoever built the place wanted people to gain access to whatever was inside, but only the right people.

In a slightly more "realistic" setting, the puzzles might be based off the teachings of a religious or philosophical sect, so only initiates who really understood the religion or philosophy would be able to solve the puzzle and reach the next stage. This would also keep the internal workings of the sect private, much like the modern Masons, where you cannot reach the next level until you understand the rituals and teachings, you are not going to reach the inner sanctum and speak to the high priest unless you can solve all 22 levels and beat the gatekeeper in a lightning round of chess. As for the unbelievers, well crocodiles need love and attention too.....

If the religion or philosophy was either very arcane, had a very limited distribution or had become extinct, then explorers coming across the ruins will find a very strange set of traps with no discenable purpose, and members of the party are being fed to the hungry mutant sea bass at seemingly random intervals.

So putting puzzles in dungeons or other settings could actually be to serve a screening function, and ensure only the right people got in, and the wrong people were (rather violently) screened out.

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I was going to work up this long, strange, Skyrim specific thing, but, this. Of note though is that, in that case, the draugr really are specifically staged for the return of the dragons. In that fiction, there is an afterlife, and they can't go there, because they are protecting those persons and relics important to the regime, which need to be accessible. +1. – Sean Boddy Feb 20 at 4:34
The Anasazi chipped holes in the rock walls for hand and toe holds, used for scaling the cliff into the city. It's rumored they were cut a specific way so if you started with your hands in the wrong holes, you'd get halfway up and be stuck. – MichaelS Feb 20 at 5:09
Today, we have pin-code entrance in our homes. Isn't it just the same thing? – T3 H40 Feb 20 at 10:35
Two movies with that setting of having a puzzle to only allow the 'right' person in. Indiana Jones goes through a puzzle and then has to choose the Holy Grail - which most clearly only the initiated will chose wisely :-) Vin Diesel, in The Pacifier uses the lyrics that (dead) Daddy told his children to get through Daddy's security. There's certainly many more (links to YouTube) – Rolazaro Azeveires Feb 20 at 23:54
It should be noted that in Skyrim in particular, the Twilight Sepulcher's puzzles do appear to be based on the philosophy of Nocturnal, whose temple it is. They are also explicitly intended for use by religious pilgrims. They still feel a bit more video-gamey than one might expect in a real temple, but meh. – Kevin Feb 21 at 0:15

TL;DR: To slow the intruder down.

Step back in time for a moment and imagine you're one of the Dwemer. You need a way of being able to access a room that makes it hard for other people to get in.

You could put up a gate with a lock, but this has several major flaws:

  1. People in Skyrim know how to lockpick.
  2. People who need to enter the room need a key.
  3. People who want a key can pickpocket someone who has one.
  4. People who want a key can kill someone who has one.

Now consider putting up a system that requires people to move levers around in the right order:

  1. Cannot be lockpicked.
  2. No need to forge a new key every time.
  3. The correct order cannot be pickpocketed (unless written down).
  4. People who want a key would have an incentive to keep you alive.

Someone could figure out how the system works, but remember at this point in time the mines are still fully operational. That means there are Dwemer walking through the corridors all the time, so the longer an intruder takes to figure it out, the higher their chances of being spotted are.

These are the same reasons for why people use combination safes instead of safes with keys.

Now look on the other side of the coin, imagine that humanity died out and the apes took over. You are now an ape trying to break into fort knox. Fort knox stopped being manned centuries ago but the ruins still stand. It would take you a while and you might need some heavy machinery, but you'd eventually break in.

When it comes down to it, all security systems are just delay mechanisms. Even passwords. Given enough time, a program set up to brute-force your password will find the correct password evantually. The idea is to make it take an implausibly long time to brute-force, not to make it impossible.

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To answer the broader question of "Why puzzles?"

In other series (Zelda comes first to mind), the puzzles might be a test to make sure that the Hero is worthy of the prize. Wonderfully deconstructed by Awkward Zombie:

Sliding Scale from Awkward Zombie

Sliding Scale from Awkward Zombie

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"The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs."

This is a famous example of a "puzzle" that nearly stumped a very wise wizard.

Yet, it was not meant by its builder to be an insurmountable obstacle. It allowed free access to those who understood what was required, while simultaneously imposing a deterrent to those beasts or persons that did not understand. So I would concur with the idea that a solvable "puzzle" is not inherently unreasonable.

On the other hand, the plausibility can be lost depending on the details. As a comic given in another answer indicates, if it would be a serious loss for a known foe to gain access, it does stretch matters beyond reasonableness if the puzzle is solvable even by that known dangerous foe.

Durin's Door is not an example of this failed case. It was a plausible puzzle for reasons recognized and explained in the story -- after the puzzle is solved.

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Nice security question – Wayne Werner Feb 23 at 20:41

It's a Folly:

In architecture, a folly is a building constructed primarily for decoration, but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose, or appearing to be so extravagant that it transcends the range of garden ornaments usually associated with the class of buildings to which it belongs.


The point of the puzzles was never to be difficult, but rather that there was someone sufficiently rich who thought it might be sorta cool.

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Spoilers for the D&D module Tomb of Horrors below.

In the (in)famous Dungeons and Dragons adventure, the Tomb of Horrors, the tomb in question is known across the land as being very hard to navigate, filled with deadly traps and puzzles, and home to a hoard of treasure. Adventurers turn up so frequently to attempt the tomb that a town has sprung up around the entrance, filled with businesses trading in weapons, healing potions, and general adventuring supplies.

In fact, it turns out that the powerful demi-lich Acererak created the tomb, the traps, and the stories about it, all in order to attract adventurers. The traps and puzzles are lethal in order to scare off, kill, or otherwise prevent the weaker among them, ensuring that only the strongest will make it to the deepest extent of the tomb... where Acererak will harvest their souls in order to increase his own power. He doesn't want weak souls because it's a difficult process and not worth wasting, and if too many adventurers make it through, he'd be too tired or busy to deal with them all, meaning that some of them might get lucky and actually manage to kill him. The whole place is therefore designed to kill most, but not all, leaving him with a steady supply of souls that are worth harvesting.

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