Behind the Screen: More on puzzles…

2007 December 5
by Dante

On Monday, I discussed an exceedingly good puzzle experience but I feel it is important to examine how most puzzle scenarios go horribly wrong.

Lack of context

If you are like me, either you don’t have time or impetus to spend hours coming up with a good puzzle to put your players through. In the cases where I want a puzzle, I usually turn to a set of riddle books, or online puzzle resources.

The trouble with riddles from books or ones gleaned from other sources is that they often have a different context. For example, if your setting is a dungeon-crawl, you will have outdoor puzzles or riddles at your disposal. This causes you to either hack the puzzle to change the context, or use something that really doesn’t fit in your scenario… neither option I would recommend.

This thing’s too hard…I’m taking my longsword and going home.

I hate being presented with a puzzle that is too hard, or one that has obtuse literary references that I won’t understand. That leads to about 10 minutes of interaction, engagement, and roleplay followed by 50 minutes of frustration while someone smarter than me figures it out.

For that matter, if you are constructing a puzzle that has a certain context, riddle, or reference that might not be generally known you should arrange for clues or hints to nudge your players onto the right path, or give them a hint so they can progress. Some DMs tend to make some sort of a penalty, be it the denial of a reward or a reduction in the experience for the puzzle, for taking the hint but I tend to use my discretion. There’s no need to rub salt in the wounds of your players just because you selected a puzzle that was too hard for them.

I’m just a nice guy that way.

Make a way out

To augment that last point, unless you want to have a severely annoyed party you should give them a way out. You can handle this in a variety of ways, I quite enjoy the way they handle this type of thing at True Dungeon. If you can’t get the puzzle in a certain amount of time, you take damage or have to fight your way out in order to progress. By having an out, you can guarantee your players will not spend any more time being annoyed than they choose to.

If you can work to select puzzles that fit with the context of your campaign, have attainable solutions, and ways out should they prove too difficult you have a good chance of having a satisfactory experience.

If you have any further tips on how to select and apply puzzles to your campaign please leave a comment, its good to have fresh ideas!

One Response leave one →
  1. ChattyDM permalink
    December 5, 2007

    Intersting pair of posts Dante.

    I’ve read somewhere (Book of Challenges I think) that puzzles are best placed on a non-choke point of your adventure.

    For example in a dungeon crawl, placing it at the entrance = bad… pacing it at the end of it’s west wing, warding some nifty but not essential piece of loot = good!

    If puzzle is too hard, the group can move on and work at it subconsciously (or let the super smart person work it out while the other Joes and Joans slay goblins)

    Finally, would you consider adding another post to this series? I’d like to read your take on the biggest puzzles of them all: The Investigation game.

    I can’t really tackle it on my blog for various reasons but I really would like to see you talk about it. I believe Investigations are the hardest puzzles to pull and maintain fun…. (Mostly because by default, the puzzle is at a chole point of the story… find the clue to move to the next scene…)

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