The Fellowship of the Ruby Amulet (oh, so original, guys!) enters the temple ruins and finds a pile of rune stones in the middle of the room, with a others occupying zones indicated on the floor around the edge of the room. These runestones are actually tactile elements, just like the player tokens and the gridmap. The DM obviously spent at least fifteen minutes making those.
“20, total;” says the player behind the Dwarven cleric, making it clear that he doesn’t mean to say that he rolled a critical success (20 on a 20-sided die) but 20 with all bonuses included.
“Not quite what I had in mind,” says the slightly disappointed DM who had hoped that the players would try and figure out the clever puzzle amongst themselves through in-character dialogue rather than reaching straight for the dice.
“Oh, great. Another one of these,” complains the player behind the wizard. He is frustrated because he would rather be lobbing fireballs than sorting runes and he is really not looking forward to another session that boils down to guess what number the DM is thinking of?
This is why some of us who run Dungeons and Dragons games (or similar tabletop games such as World of Darkness, etc.) are nervous about putting puzzles into our campaigns. We want to seem clever and give the players a problem that can’t be too easily solved (or too easily rendered impossible to solve) by a single roll of the dice. Yet we don’t want to be seen as wasting time, distracting from the real game at hand, or being too cryptic. Here are some suggestions for Dungeon Masters who wish to strike a good balance:
- Read your group. To make this easy, you can ask them directly if they like puzzles or hack-and-slash. Surprise them with the puzzle itself, not the existence of puzzles. You can’t please everyone all the time, but some groups just aren’t puzzle-solving groups. And that’s okay. If your friends want hack and slash and you don’t, then don’t invite them. It’s okay to not invite all of your friends to all of your things (see also: Geek Social Fallacy #5).
- Steal. Borrow. Make homage to. Whatever you want to call it, there is nothing new under the sun. If you take the time to read up on previously published puzzles, whether in pure logic puzzle form or already adapted for tabletop RPG, then you know that it’s solvable by someone other than your own clever self. It is not hard to adapt a good published module to fit any setting, but one of the things I want to do in the next few months is read though Wikipedia’s lists of logic puzzles and games in game theory to see if I can come up with some innovative if not completely original ideas.
- Use puzzles as deliberate diversions or for earning extra rewards. If players can abandon the puzzle and carry on with their lives, they may just do that instead of spending hours getting frustrated over being unable to unlock the only exit. Maybe they will decide to go without those extra spell scrolls or self-sealing stembolts or whatever in-game items would be helpful in your setting. If you are feeling especially maniacal, pack a container with useful items and if the players skip it then give the items to the enemies later to make things harder.
- Build stages of difficulty into the puzzle that can have dice rolls for giving hints rather than solving everything at once. The inherent difficulty for the DM here is that it means taking extra time to build it into the game, and I have sure had those sessions where I’ve figured out the plot and the tactical encounter mere minutes before the players arrive. I think it is worth it, though, especially when you have someone roleplaying a very intelligent character who wants to feel really smart even if they are actually struggling to get it. I’ve been that guy a few times.
- Throw in immediate consequences to not solving the puzzle in a timely manner. Putting a timer on a puzzle is useful because it pushes the players to try solutions rather than overthinking it, allows action-oriented players to have a chance to shine. The guards/kobolds/etc. that have been chasing you catch up if the lock isn’t opened in time. The container explodes after a set number of failed attempts. This also encourages the DM/designer to keep the puzzle relatively simple rather than going overboard on trying to be clever.
I don’t think puzzles are necessary or always desirable in a tabletop RPG, but a good one can result in a better story than “I solved the thing because I rolled a really high number on this die.” I will be trying to follow my own advice over the next few months as I finally get around to taking some of those ephemeral campaign ideas and putting it into a coherent set of DM’s notes. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment somewhere (here, Facebook, Twitter, wherever you post the most).