All right Game Fans, today we’re going to talk about Puzzles and how to include in your encounters. Puzzles are a staple of the fantasy genre and really came into their own with the rise of video games. Puzzles can include Movable blocks, hidden floor panels, and other combinations of environmentally based scenic elements that can be manipulated to effect a change in the environment of the area. They also represent password protected areas or barriers that prevent movement forward (The secret door into the Mines of Moria, for example). Let’s take a closer look at puzzles and some of the best ways to incorporate them into your game, and some suggestions on puzzle traps to avoid.
I’ll be honest with you, from a player perspective, i find puzzles to be amazingly irritating. Through a variety of factors (we’ll go over those in a moment) puzzles often don’t work they were intended to and rather than being a challenge to overcome, they become a solid wall that bars progress forward. I have seen puzzles regularly derail games that otherwise were going strong. As a plot device, they can work, but you need to set them up right in order to get the party involved with them at a functional level.
Puzzles are basically deductive reasoning experiments on a larger (in some cases) scale and with higher stakes. The goal of most puzzle based encounters is for the players to interact with the interactive parts of their environment to achieve some sort of a change to said environment. Whether that change is a door opening, a shaft filling with water so they can traverse it, or finding their way into the super secret gold room, the puzzle is built to facilitate a change in that state.
Let’s take a look at the components of the puzzle:
The barrier: Whatever physical or mystical object is impeding forward progress.
The locks: Either singular or plural, these are the elements that player manipulation will open or close depending on the specific puzzle needs.
The Keys: Rarely an actual key, but these are the points of interaction that the players will directly touch and interact with in order to open or close the locks to move the barrier.
(Using this operational definition, technically locks are puzzles. We agree, but they ever presence of keys and sneaky rogues mitigate locks as puzzles in most situations)
Let’s take a look at some examples of these in action.
“The room you’ve entered is 20 feet wide and 30 feet across. Situated in a pentagonal formation in the center of the room are five notched pedestals that are four feet high. In the center of each pedestal is a golden ring. The door on the other side of the room is behind an aquarium. You get the impression that you’re going to have to find a way to drain the water from the aquarium to get to the door.”
(The players try to investigate the columns)
“Upon investigating and interacting with the columns, you discover that you can push them down into the floor (they make a click with each notch), or you can use the pull ring to pull them out to their full height of 7 feet. You think you can use the pull ring to turn the column, but it has to be at one of the points where the notch connects to the slot in the mechanism.”
(The players investigate the Aquarium)
“The tank is approximately 5 feet wide and made of something transparent on three sides. The back side is formed by the door forward. The current structure forms a tight seal and you can’t see any ways to break the seal or move the aquarium. It’s filled with some kind of liquid, and tiny fish are floating in the liquid.”
(A player tries to bash open the Aquarium)
“You swing as hard as you can, but it doesn’t even seem to scratch the tank. Magical attacks are likewise rebuffed.”
As the players interact with the columns, they can eventually (and this should happen fairly quickly) that they can lower the water level inside the aquarium (The lock) by manipulating the columns (the keys). Eventually, they can empty the Aquarium (the Barrier) and move forward. Locking the column in place means that it can’t be turned again (which is important if you want to seal the locks to prevent tampering).
Now you can introduce all sorts of complications to make this puzzle more challenging or dangerous, but this serves as a fully activated puzzle for your mischief making needs. (I’ll let you guys determine what actual positions are needed to get passed the puzzle)
You could construct a puzzle that uses switches to form a primitive electrical circuit to power a door, or a sorting puzzle where the players have to separate specific materials into different storage areas. You can have a lot of potential fun with puzzles as a plot element, but let’s take a look at a couple of puzzles that have issues.
A Classic puzzle from an old adventure (written by the Man himself, Gary Gygax) drops the characters into a room.
“The room you’re in has alternating squares of black and white. You find yourself on one of the room and need to get to the other side.”
The crux of this puzzle (and you should really use a map with it) is that the characters have landed on a chessboard in positions that correspond to pieces from Chess. Depending on where they land, they effectively assume the movement characteristics of the Piece they represent. If they move the way the chess piece is supposed to move, nothing happens. If they move contrary to to that, then all sorts of hellfire rains down on them. This can be a fun puzzle, but be very leery of puzzles like this for a couple of reasons.
First, this puzzle assumes that the players will recognize the puzzle for what it is, and then apply their out of character knowledge to solving this puzzle. Any time you bring out of character information into the game environment, you run the risk of confusion and problems. It also sets a valid precedent for metagaming (using the idea that you as a player know you’re playing a game and thus there are certain specifics of the universe that would only exist in a game). If there isn’t a Chess equivalent in the world, then this puzzle should be maddeningly frustrating for the characters solving it. Add in the location of this puzzle (Inside the Tomb of Horrors, a well known Death Trap for the ages) and you could end up killing at least one character solving what you think should be an easy puzzle.
Another puzzle that has a problem is:
“Upon entering the ancient tomb, the Spirits of the dead appear. ‘Honor the Spirits of the Ancient Kings by reciting their lineage in order or suffer their wrath'.”
This puzzle assumes the characters know things that their players may not. As a player my first instinct is going to be rolling a history or some other kind of check to find the information that my character should be able to remember. If you’re going to build a puzzle like like this, having an aid, or clues that you’ve laid throughout the adventure leading up to this puzzle is essential. If all of the characters fail this check to determine how to answer this puzzle, they’ve run headlong into a brick wall that sounds like it’s going to murder them for insolence.
Puzzles can be interesting plot devices, but they need to have a couple of key features to work effectively for storytelling.
- Clear descriptions of all the parts of the puzzle. The players may not get them from the first walk through, but you should clearly be able to explain to the players what the individual keys and locks are (Not how they interact) and what the barrier forward is
- Handouts. Puzzles benefit from other maps (for big puzzles), examples and physical things to interact with. If they can look at the puzzle, they have a better chance of buying into the immersion and interacting with it.
Things to watch out for when building a puzzle:
- Complexity: Puzzles can be made to be maddeningly complex, but you have to be able to clearly explain the puzzle to the players. If you can’t clearly explain it, it’s probably overly complicated and won’t be easy to interact with (Note the distinction between interaction and completion). A puzzle that’s hard to interact with isn’t generally a fun thing for a group of players to deal with.
- Knowledge Base: If the puzzle requires out of character knowledge to solve, it can suggest that metagaming is an appropriate strategy for solution. This can start problems you’re wanting to avoid as a GM. If the knowledge is strictly character based, then you need to include handouts or clues that give the players a fighting chance of solving the puzzle if the dice fail them.
- Players are sneaky and clever, and will on occasion solve a puzzle in a method you didn’t intend. Let them have the win for their deductive cleverness.
I also suggest that you use puzzles sparingly, as they can be extremely tedious if the entire dungeon is puzzles. Once in a while a puzzle can serve as an excellent change of pace, but you run the risk of alienating your players if its all puzzles all the time. Variety between Combat, Social, and Exploration encounters makes for excellent adventuring.
We’ll take a closer look at building combat encounters next time, until then, Game on, Game Fans.