Acanthus’s Condundrums is a weekly post that gives you a puzzle and riddles to use in your roleplaying game.
As ever, each comes with a suggested solution, but be generous to your players if they come up with reasonable answers, especially when it comes to the riddles. I’ve also included some thoughts about how the riddles have appeared historically so you can adapt them to your adventure.
Puzzle #2: The Dangerous River Crossing
A man had to transport a wolf, a goat, and a bag of cabbages across a river. But the only boat that he could find could only carry the man and one of them at a time. He was told to carry them all across unharmed. Tell me two ways how he might have done this?
Either: Transport the goat. Go back Empty. Transport the wolf. Go back with the goat. Transport the cabbage. Go back empty. Transport the goat.
Or: Transport the goat. Go back empty. Transport the cabbage. Go back with the goat. Transport the wolf. Go back empty. Transport the goat.
To solve this riddle, you need to think about what each animal likes to eat: goats love eating cabbages and wolves love eating goats, so you can’t leave them alone. “Crossing” puzzles like this are still very popular today, but this is the earliest surviving example — it’s 1200 years old.
“I have little courage but am resourceful:
I do not seek wealth, but I give it to others.
Wandering around, I eat humble foods,
And I am often forced to give up my wealth.
People keep my body close to them.
I have no money, but even kings value me.”
If you need to offer clues, suggested answers are: a mouse; an ocean; a mine; a sheep.
Answer: sheep, with its valuable wool.
Riddles often give their subjects human characteristics to obscure their actual meaning. Unlike a mine or an ocean, a sheep has to eat. And unlike a mouse, the sheep’s coat is valuable in some way to all of us.
“All are born and sleep on me, and nourished by me as they grow.
But I am torn apart by all for their own gain; they keep me under their heel.
In the end I welcome all back to my warm embrace, holding them tightly to me.
For as they lose what they love, none can choose to leave me.”
If you need to offer clues, suggested answers are: a home; a family; a farm; the earth or ground.
Answer: earth or ground. Unlike a farm or a home, the ground can’t be left when people choose to. And unlike a family, the earth can be slept on.
This is another example of something non-human being given human characteristics, although the Earth is considered to be alive in the same way as humans by many people.
“We are dissimilar, yet cannot live or move without each other.
Even so, each of us seeks to exhaust the other when together.
The first of us runs in the depths, the second flies in the skies.
One can be watched but should not be touched; the other allows itself to be touched, but not to be seen.”
People may suggest various creatures of characters, but this is another example of some non-living things being given human-sounding characteristics.
Answer: fire and air or wind. This is another ancient riddle, but anything around these answers, such as “lava and air” or “heat and oxygen” could be accepted. Fire needs oxygen – historically just “air” – to burn, but will use it up, while winds exist in great part by the energy provided by heat yet will extinguish fire, for example blowing out a candle.