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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    $\begingroup$ Why else would eccentric millionaires fill dungeons with gold? $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Feb 20 '16 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ From pokemon to skyrim this is a terrifying question... $\endgroup$ – wposeyjr Feb 20 '16 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ It may have been a prison, not a fortress. You actually came from the easy side. $\endgroup$ – Kolaru Feb 20 '16 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Feb 20 '16 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Bosboom Feb 21 '16 at 21:55

11 Answers 11


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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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Todd Wilcox Feb 21 '16 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ @ToddWilcox, a grue? Furry, four legs, one tail, whiskers, won't let you pass unless you open a can first? $\endgroup$ – o.m. Feb 22 '16 at 6:18
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    $\begingroup$ @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. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Feb 22 '16 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Tonny, no, but two of my co-workers tell interesting stories. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Feb 22 '16 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @HarryDavid, I didn't say where the key is hidden on the front porch. Happy digging in the flower pots ... $\endgroup$ – o.m. Nov 2 '16 at 15:45

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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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Feb 20 '16 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – MichaelS Feb 20 '16 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ Today, we have pin-code entrance in our homes. Isn't it just the same thing? $\endgroup$ – T3 H40 Feb 20 '16 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ 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) $\endgroup$ – Rolazaro Azeveires Feb 20 '16 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Feb 21 '16 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 eventually. The idea is to make it take an implausibly long time to brute-force, not to make it impossible.

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    $\begingroup$ Technically passwords are impossible to break. It would take longer than the age of the universe to guess a password. $\endgroup$ – QuyNguyen2013 Apr 19 '17 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ @QuyNguyen2013 Depends on the length of the password and how many guesses you can make per second. It has to be reasonably long before brute forcing would take longer than the age of the universe. Don't forget the Dwemer aren't using hash algorithms like SHA256. Besides which 'eventually' is permitted to exceed the lifespan of the universe in a magical context. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Apr 20 '17 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ but many magical universes still obey conservation of energy though, so the heat death would be inevitable $\endgroup$ – QuyNguyen2013 Apr 20 '17 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ There is one security system that is not actually a delaying mechanism: the one-time pad. If a one-time pad is correctly implemented, it is mathematically impossible to deduce anything about the enciphered message without the cipher key. And ironically, unlike SHA256, the Dwemer could actually use a one-time pad, since IRL it was invented well before computers. $\endgroup$ – trevorKirkby Jun 4 '18 at 6:45
  • $\begingroup$ @someone-or-other OTPs aren't a miracle cure unfortunately. They come with their own set of problems. Let's ignore some of the other issues for a moment and focus on the real world problem: OTPs are supposed to be used only once, so how does one facilitate a reusable lock by using something that can't be reused? $\endgroup$ – Pharap Jun 4 '18 at 7:01

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


"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.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice security question $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Feb 23 '16 at 20:41

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.


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.


10 Extravagant Buildings That Serve No Purpose

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.


One answer I've seen in literature is to set up a convincing illusion to disguise the deeper secrets of the building. In his book Bands of Mourning, Brandon Sanderson presents an interesting twist on the typical dungeon filled with puzzles and traps (major spoiler alert). The characters run into a stereotypical set of pit traps, acid traps, swinging weapons, tile-activated traps, etc. All of this supposedly protects a powerful weapon. However, the characters don't find this entirely logical.

"The ones who built this place were charged with protecting the Sovereign's weapon. They knew others would eventually follow, and so the builders were bound to make it difficult, knowing that they could not remain to guard in person..."

"Why would your people build such an obvious resting place for the Bands? Why make this temple, which proclaims thatsomething precious is inside, then go to the effort of making all these traps? Why not just hide the Bands someplace unassuming, like a cave?"

"They are a challenge, like I said..."

"You told me the sovereign left his weapon there with order to protect it because he was going to return for it, Right? ... Wouldn't they have been worried for your king's safety?"

Unfortunately, the logical place for the prize appears to have already been looted, but they realize the traps and fake treasure room were only to fool them and make them think they had solved the challenge, when the weapon was hidden elsewhere. They then find a hidden side chamber with what appears to hold the real weapon.

"Those traps... those traps are stupid. What if one did catch him? The whole things has to be a decoy..." Since the weapon was easy to hide, "only someone who knew what to look for could use your weapon. And in that case, the people who built the temple could have left the weapon where the returning Lord Ruler would see it, but everyone else would pass right by, digging farther into the temple to encounter traps, pits, and decoys, all designed to either kill them or convince them they'd successfully robbed the place"

So in summary, the puzzles can be a distraction to stop you from digging too deep into the secrets or the place and feel like you've explored enough. They set up a linear route down the path which a clever designer can use to give the user tunnel vision.


Maximum Security for Secrets

If you have valuable secrets, you want to defend them with as many levels of security as possible. Maximum security can be achieved with:

  • maximum number of guards
  • many obscure, puzzling blocking mechanisms
  • hiding all parts of the secret deep in unlikely places

Well Guarded

The more human guards around your secret, the more likely intruders will be spotted before they discover the entrance to the secret path. To ensure maximum vigilance around the secret, place it where many sentries are already supposed to be constantly vigilant for obvious, non-secret reasons. What better place than a heavily guarded dungeon inside a heavily fortified castle?

Puzzling Blocking Mechanisms Relying on Arcane Principles

Another type of security is placing a blocking mechanism between thieves and your secret. Simple locks opened with keys, being relatively common mechanisms, could be familiar enough to thieves that expert lockpickers could pass through them all too easily. Therefore, blocking mechanisms employing obscure, puzzling principles would be essential in foiling would-be plunderers:

  • Each successive puzzling blockage increases the likelihood invaders will not be able to solve at least one of the puzzles

  • In addition, if each puzzle requires a significantly different style of thinking to solve, it further increases the likelihood invaders will at some point not be intelligent enough to solve them all


Hiding access to the valuables is another way to prevent them from being found. It is almost the opposite of a blocking puzzle--here the puzzle is simply "why would I look there?" Hiding can take the form of:

  • keeping the gold in the least likely of places (i.e. in a dank old dungeon, rather than in the most obvious of places--the gilded treasury everyone knows about)

  • concealing an opening or lever which would ordinarily have been in plain sight (i.e. hiding a lever behind a plate in a room)

  • placing the hidden opening or lever at a vast distance from the invader (i.e. at an inconspicuous place deep within labyrinthian secret catacombs attached to the dungeon.)

Hence Dungeons with Long, Puzzle-Laden Passages are Best for Treasure!

Thus, a dungeon filled with guards, secret passages and layered with mysterious, arcane puzzles is basically a supermax vault hidden within a fortress, and hence one of the best places to successfully hide your most precious secrets.


A test for intelligence

This comes from a scifi novel, but I think it could also apply to medieval fantasy dungeons. A series of puzzles are put in place with the aim of allowing access only to whoever have the intellectual means to get past the puzzles. In this case the puzzles aren't meant to prevent access to the dungeon goodies, but they're merely a test to make sure whoever reaches the goodies are worth of them.



I think there are two distinct sets of areas to place traps. The first is tombs and graves. Places that hold the dead. The easiest justification for having traps here is religion. The builders believe that at some point in the future the bodies need to be taken away.

This is likely to be combined with some mummification process, either Egyptian or Incan. It might even be bog mummies. Now, why do they need to be taken away? Maybe a savior will come that lets all the dead rise and join him on a journey. The savior will be smart enough to solve the puzzle and mere mortal plunderers will be blocked.

Alternatively, maybe the puzzles aren't really puzzles, but a mere test for the spirits/souls of the dead. They would see through them with ease. Again, it's us mortals that need to stay out, while still allowing the spirit to reclaim his body at the right time.


This is harder to justify. Entrances to settlements can be guarded with fake or hidden paths against outsiders visiting. I'm not sure those or a maze would count as a puzzle.

Again, religion can be used. Maybe their religion foretells a great end of the world that starts with all of the chosen people dying. But maybe the buildings are shielded against spirits. Lined with salt, herbs or runes, to keep the evil spirits in the dark outside.

But now the souls of our chosen ones are trapped inside. Maybe they need guides, valkyries, to take them to the afterlife. Perhaps the intricate locks are made for such divine creatures. Simple mortals and ghosts struggle but, divine beings can easily open them.

A completely different approach: maybe they weren't build as puzzles. Their society build a very extensive network of pullies and levers. Opening doors, trapdoors for supplies, adjusting machinery. Now over time things broke. Instead of a well working system it became a broken death trap.

Perhaps the system doesn't rely on inorganic cogs and ropes. Maybe it's organic and without caretakers it grew, made connections it shouldn't. Maybe the switch for the door now also open the airlock. A broken one that's now filled with poisonous gas instead of the supposed medical herbs. Again a death trap.


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