The Curse of the Macro Puzzle…

2008 September 10
by Dante

Let’s face it, boys and girls… puzzles can sometimes be frustrating. In our recent Ravenloft campaign, we have been marooned on a strange island upon which we appear to be trapped. Our group made several attempts at paddling our lifeboat out into the sea, only to get repeatedly deposited back on the same shores from whence we came.

At this point, I don’t know if it is a puzzle or one of those magical effects intended to keep us within the constraints of the general plot, but suffice it to say several repeat failures was a wee bit frustrating for our group.

The cost of moving on

I have attempted to use these larger scale puzzles or traps within my own campaigns, and I constantly run into trouble with people not “getting the hints” or constantly trying the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result. This is actually Einstein’s definition of insanity, for those keeping score at home.

One of two things happen: the session grinds to a halt, with frustrated players quickly breaking character and discussing the plot reasons why they aren’t able to solve the approach with their best efforts, or they attempt to abandon the puzzle and move on to find out more about their surroundings hoping later to find the key that will lead them to success.

I have two pieces of advice for those wanting to inject this type of event into their campaigns: expect your players to be stupider than you give them credit for. The glaring hint that you have given them will almost never make sense unless you beat the players over the head with it, or give them several data points upon which to connect the dots. Secondly, you should always give your players an “out”, where they can move on to explore another part of the plot while they figure out the aspects of the puzzle that are currently unclear.

Luckily, our DMs for this campaign did the latter and allowed us a few leads to different areas of the plot, which we wrapped up the last session by following. Hopefully more will become clear next week, but the progress was encouraging and that is the benefit from this approach.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. mdonle permalink
    September 10, 2008

    I’ve had a idea for a similar ‘puzzle’ that I’m having trouble sticking in my adventures because I’m not sure my players will ‘get it’. The Party is outside a door, and they are set upon by multiple enemies, too many to handle in fact. The idea is that they would be pushed back through the door close it and lock it. But there are many holes. What happens if they just try to fight it out? What happens if a party member falls outside the door? The consequences are a little too dire than ‘you are returned to the island unharmed’ for me to assume that the players will ‘get it’. I wish i could try this though, it seems like it would add a bit of suspense.

  2. Dante permalink
    September 10, 2008

    We had something somewhat similar to that to round out our last campaign… we tried making it enemies that they could easily kill, but the sheer numbers of them prevented an escape.

    The other option would be to revise the scenario to a crushing wall or spiked ceiling type of scenario, where it wouldn’t be attackers but there would be a ticking clock. Then you could include some sort of a skill based “kill switch” for the trap that would stop the moving device but leave them forced to figure out the puzzle to move on.

    Puzzles can be tough to wrangle correctly, so good luck to you!

  3. jamused permalink
    September 10, 2008

    Sometimes the solution is to “go meta.” Having the GM explicitly say “Yes, this is a puzzle” or “No, this isn’t a puzzle, I just need you to stay in this scenario” can save hours of frustration. At times I’m astonished at the lengths groups will go to, and the amount of frustration and hard feelings they’re willing to bear, in order to avoid talking about the game as a game.

  4. Mike Lemmer permalink
    September 10, 2008

    Repeated attempts aren’t insanity, though, because in RPGs you are never sure if you’re doing the exact same thing: maybe you’ll succeed if the dice just roll a bit better.

    I blame the lack of differences between near-misses and outright failures. Players can’t be sure if they missed a check by 1 or by 19, thus they’re never sure whether another attempt will succeed or be futile.

  5. thanuir permalink
    September 10, 2008

    A puzzle with only a single solution is almost never a good thing; players will come up with alternatives, some of which would reasonably work, try them, and feel frustrated when their reasonable attempts do not work.

    Always make open puzzles; offer a problem, let players figure out a solution instead of having one and forcing the players to read your mind.

    Creativity, not pixelbitching.

  6. Virgil Vansant permalink
    September 11, 2008

    One of the first times I gave my players a puzzle, I thought it was a pretty simple math puzzle. They had five pillars, numbered one through five, with a button on each. They knew there was a sequence to them, and they had already found the first four numbers from someone in the Thieves’ Guild.

    I tested out on a friend of mine, and he got it, so I thought it was safe.

    Well, I was wrong. One my players started overanalyzing it with calculus! Eventually it was solved through random button pressing. I’ve only tried one other puzzle since then…

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