[d&d4e] Puzzles in RPGs

Started by AzaLiN, August 04, 2009, 05:25:07 AM

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Quote from: Evlyn on August 14, 2009, 09:46:01 AM
These are not "real" puzzle I suppose.

Those sound like great roleplaying moments but I don't see how they're "puzzles."
But then again, I haven't looked up the strict definition of puzzle lately so I could be wrong.

I would think (again, without looking it up) that a puzzle is some sort of challenge that has a set solution (or solutions) you have to come up with in order to resolve the challenge.  Like having to match certain symbols to their counterparts on a door in order for the door to open.  Only the right symbols in the right places will work.  Whereas in your description it semed more like they could've decided and described the sculptures as anything and they would've been right.  That just sounds more like a task to complete.  A neat one.  But just a task.  Like, saying someone has to pay 5 gold pieces to get by the statue.  That's not a puzzle, that's a task.  In my mind, a puzzle would be that you have to figure out the exact AMOUNT of gold pieces to give the statue, or else he attacks.  etc, etc.


I agree with you.

But what I found interesting is that, in the game, those task felt just like puzzles. Like there is some stereotype coming from video games puzzles scenes that you can use to make a pseudo puzzle achieve the same role as a real puzzle.
It make the players stops, thinks about how to overcome the challenge, wonder about the solution, dread a error, etc (i know, this is not a complete description of the role of puzzles in a game). Those pseudo puzzle felt satisfying to overcome just like some other puzzles and bring some variety in the pallet of challenge to overcome to explore the "dungeon" and can sometime put some character issues in the spotlight. Just like puzzle, players can't relies on their character stats or ability to overcome those task and there is some kind of choice involved. Well also, more clever pseudo puzzle who use more puzzle dressing could be designed, mine where quickly improvised.

Callan S.

Hi Evlyn,

While not making a narrativist agenda by themselves, those two 'puzzles' would seem to be very supportive of a narrativist game if one were being played. They offer a hurdle that can only be overcome by, basically, an expression of the characters true personality. That's really interesting that you developed that! I hope you do more and give some actual play accounts here to read in future :)


Hi Callan,

I don't know when I will have the opportunity to use similar oriented "puzzles", but I will see what I can do.
I am trying to run a game of Insylum and I have some doubts about how to deal with the escapades into the Nightworld while addressing player character issues. I dint think about it, but maybe I could focus a large part of the gameplay around symbolic puzzles or pseudo puzzles, like many survival horror video game do. It will kind of be in the "genre".
(But I think I would prefer to try to use again those "puzzles" in a fantasy colored game, Insylum is kind of a confusing game)


Update: Puzzle Outcomes from 4 sessions.

So, there was the gargoyle-blood puzzle, the cups puzzle, the imprisoned elf problem, the missing rope problem, the canopener problem, the illusionary orc, the cracked floor, and the negotiation. They all went great except the cracked floor, which I thought might be too hard so I had a simpler solution prepared just in case i was right :(

"I give my warm, hot, life xxxx to Atreus" and a cup, was the gargoyle puzzle. they had to fill it with a lot of blood- they decided to split the task amongst the whole party, and with one complication they succeeded, though were weakened for a whilely. Easy but let them debate and guess.

Cups: need 40ml and you have 30ml, 70ml, and a 100ml cups. they used the 70ml cup as a weapon earlier, but solved it nonetheless. simple puzzle, and quick.

The elf problem didn't have a set solution, but using holy attacks on the lock eventually broke it while, with one complication, the other members smashed through the ceiling into the cell, where the elf was imprisoned.

The missing rope had no set solution: they solved it by piling coffins and then using mage hand to tie knots while ascending a tower with the stairs rotted away. Quick and elegant.

The canopener problem was simply to use the device to open the stone sphere- force the players to find new uses for simple items and think creatively.

The hard puzzle was figuring out that the one player of the half-orc was actually an illusion. His lack of combat usefulness was a clue, his inability to break things another, his blood not helping the blood puzzle was yet another factor. It took all session for the goblin to figure it out and go hunting for the real character, a wizard.

In the cracked floor, they were stuck on a level of a dungeon with a cracked floor. There were a few small hints, but not enough- one section could be smashed through, but the rest not. the right spot was in the center, roughly, of the circle of cracks, which covered half the level, and could also be found by listening, following flickering torches, or pouring water into the cracks to find one that had a hole, but it was too hard and I had to give it to them a little- there weren't enough clues, and they weren't trying enough of their options with the cracks, focusing on other possibilities instead. next time, more clues.

In the negotiation, the elves were going to backstab them, but by preparing carefully and negotiating carefully, they managed to turn it into a fair trade with them instead. Not bad.


Each puzzle worked out well, with most being pretty easy or quick by design with an occasional hard one. The players felt pretty good about solving them, and when I could i left out a preset solution so that they would have more options and more satisfaction- a constant series of easy-medium challenges each a step towards an ultimate goal, which was how I figured Day of the Tentacle to be like, and except for the cracked floor puzzle (an experiment in linear rpg play, since half life is linear and i never minded), i tried to avoid 'caging' the players, giving them multiple problems to work on in whatever order they liked. I tried to keep in line with Ron's thinking, and it went pretty well. the hardest part was the pacing, but by having a distant goal taht every sub goal related to nicely, and each relating to the story pretty nicely, the pacing managed itself and the players, when interrogated by the inquisition later, could recall almost every bit of story i put into the place and the way the cult even operated, supplying other details i hadnt though of yet also, giving a lot of credit to Ron's story-puzzle combo idea. I'm sure that using puzzles to teach school subjects, or to relay narrativist goals can/does work equally well.

For the next segment, I'm trying to do a really open ended exploration setup that will be a sandbox and a series of non-linear puzzles across a geographic area. The trick will be keeping the players from just leaving the entire area, luring them to the plot- or else, to initiate their own plot- and scaling the encounters so that they won't be too high or low level for different areas.

Callan S.

It sounds like some nice material! Do you see a pattern in how to make these puzzles, or are they each sort of crafted individually rather than derivations from a certain pattern?

But on 'keeping the players from just leaving the entire area', eek! Why are you concerned about that? There could be a number of reasons so I'll start with a basic question: Can't you just say 'See this area? You can't leave it. Cool? Okay, moving on with the game...'?

Quoteluring them to the plot- or else, to initiate their own plot
Second eek!

How important is plot here? It's atleast a secondary priority or such, right? You know sports callers, when they report a game and in doing so they kind of tack a story onto the events of the sports match? Isn't that's all that's needed?


QuoteDo you see a pattern in how to make these puzzles, or are they each sort of crafted individually rather than derivations from a certain pattern?

The puzzles- not really any pattern, mostly just takes at familiar puzzles that I've tried to improve in some way- combined with some color that I like, and whenever possible, something story integral. I start with either an interesting puzzle idea, or a color/story idea, and then I combine it with the other. I'd like to tell the story with puzzles, fights, and problems as far as possible. The less narration, the better. As for the problems/obstacles, I've been trying to just make a tricky situation without a planned solution, and make sure it isn't impossible- indeed, easy is best- just hard enough to make the players feel clever. Climb out of a steeple somehow? I didn't even know the player would play a wizard with mage hand that session, there were dozens of ways to solve that connundrum. I try to make it funny too, since it is a little unrealistic, and blend the humor with horror for a revulsion effect over the long run.

Except for the part about developing an area thoroughly, and combining storytelling and puzzles, the below section is a little off topic for the puzzle thread, just to warn ye

Quoteon 'keeping the players from just leaving the entire area', eek!

yeah, I was thinking of putting up a huge invisible wall to avoid illusionism. I don't want to pretend they have can do something they can't. What happened last campaign is the party just fled the country after robbing some nobles, and left for the boring neighboring country. I'd like to put a lot of work into a specific area, and I can't do it if they wander over the whole world map at every moment- i'd like to focus on quality over a medium-large area instead. So, large invisible wall should be fine, especially since there's a strong humor tone [that will blend into horror over time, muw haw haw]

QuoteSecond eek!

What I want to try with this particular campaign, which will be a little less open ended than I usually do, is tell a story with puzzles, fights, and problem solving elements over many adventures. The story will be an adventure hook [hopefully!!!!], and learning the story will help to solve and reveal further problems, and on and on. I want to avoid leaning on the story too heavily- the focus should be on gameplay and roleplaying, but I want to experiment with storytelling using this approach. Each story fragment should feel, if not like something interesting to know, then a part of a map or a piece of a puzzle to advance further into the campaign- a wedge to dig deeper with for more gameplay and roleplaying. Another reason I don't want them leaving the area- I can't develop anything in detail if i dont know where it is, and its blatant backstabbing to just move dungeons wherever they travel- illusionism, which I want to avoid except where its funny... which isn't often. There's been a touch of railroading, but it's been comically blatant and we've had a lot of fun with it, since I only want to use it for certain things to initiate other things.

I realize this is counter intuitive, and against a lot of RPG doctrine, but its also against my regular practice and I think I can make it turn out but it'll take a deft hand...

If my posts seem a little incoherent, it's cause i'm struggling to find time to write them. Any questions and I'll fill in any details I left out/muddled.


Quotewould think (again, without looking it up) that a puzzle is some sort of challenge that has a set solution (or solutions) you have to come up with in order to resolve the challenge.

Any specific puzzles you have in mind that worked out well for ye?? :D


Drawing a blank for some puzzles right now. I need about a dozen decent ones to allow multiple avenues of exploration. I want to use a cipher for messages between elven groups, but I don't know how to make one that will be easy enough to solve PnP, without being too simple. Anyone have an example/hint? all the ciphers I've done have been in cpu games, with rotating knobs and stuff.

I think a book cipher could be good.

I also want an unfinished monument in the middle of nowhere that they find, and later on find bricks and diagrams for it in another area, but I'd like to do it so that its more of a puzzle and less obvious than that. Finishing the monument will unlock an area or trigger some stuff.

I'd like a puzzle that involves comparing local maps to regional maps to figure out where they apply to, but in PnP [pen n paper], without a lot of trial and error, skill checks, or hours of mapping, I'm not sure its feasible.

In Nostradamus, the Last Prophecy, there's a neat puzzle at the start that involves creating a disguise accurately. There's not really any pictures in PnP, so I'm not sure I can run a similar one without vexing the players!

I'd also like some sherlock holmes deduction moments, but a bit easier on the players, and without providing too many clues. I'll need to indicate that there's a deduction to be had, and yet i can't find my Arthur conan doyle books right now. Any clever tricks you recall him using/scenarios? I know that the part about figuring out somebody's profession by callouses has some potential for coolness [good ol' perception checks]

Lastly, since the party is a mixed evil-good mostly-violent group, has anybody a suggestion for designing puzzles that involve NPCs, especially evil NPCs, that don't end in torture, threats, or murder?


Not many puzzles last session, but let me say that the makers of the Dungeon Delve product never expected such comprehensively superior tactics to be used against the 'Delve's' inhabitants. Without modifications, unless the party just rambos in mindlessly out of a desire for a thrill, there's no challenge in them! More puzzle-outcome updates to come approx. weekly...


Puzzle-solving doesn't seem like much of a group activity- it really only takes one brain and a little determination. I think the players realize this, because usually with any slightly-tough puzzle, they just sit back and let the wizard and/or the swordmage handle it, only getting involved when those 2 fail to find a solution- which is fair, honestly. Its just duplication of efforts. Therefore, I'm not so sure that these sorts of puzzles occasion more than sporadic appearances... sadly...

If I'm not mistaken, I think I'll have more success with a problem-solving orientation instead of a puzzle-solving one. Sorry to create a distinction that's so unclear, but what I mean by problem is something like a tunnel going down with no rope or ladder, and a puzzle is more like a riddle or a safe-combination or a cipher. With problems each player can find a different acceptable solution, and then debate which is best, generating a lot more engaging and useful activity than a puzzle.

I also think that any puzzle or problem that's included should have multiple elements that need to be resolved before the problem goes away. For example- instead of entering the single correct key-code into the wall panel, you insert each of 6 special keys or numbers obtained elsewhere, involving 6 elements instead of 1. What i'm thinking is that this way, each player has something to do- get a key [somehow], and the group reduces the problem in chunks. defeating 10 orcs in combat is similar: the problem has 10 elements and you reduce it 1 chunk [orc] at a time, and actually, about 60hp per orc at a time, allowing for further combination of efforts.

One problem I'm working on is a docile town that is in danger of an orc raid: each player has a lot to do to get the town ready to defend itself, since the problem has so many elements to it and has to be in chunks, and there's so many ways to do it. Assuming the players don't just leave town, lol.

On another note, is there a way to make exploring a wilderness area interesting in a table-top game? In keeping with sandbox ideas, I wouldn't mind a bit wilderness area that's there to explore, but I can't imagine how to make it interesting to do so- its so much easier in cpu games.

Callan S.

If they sit back, perhaps their just not into any sort of gamist puzzle solving? I don't see anything that would stop them thinking on the answer, except disinterest.

Finding a different acceptable solution is just watering down the gamism - and if they aren't into it, you can never water it down enough. Rather than watered down, completely gone and they are free to give the 'solution' that just perfectly slots into the dream they have, is what they will sit forward for. It'll be all about maintaining that dreams integrity.


Could you clarify a bit? I think a word or 2 got left out

QuoteRather than watered down, completely gone and they are free

Callan S.

I'll rephrase it - The ones who sit back probably dont want more acceptable solutions, they just want whatever fits the dream. They probably get no real life buzz from finding solutions - that's why they sit back and leave it to the sword mage/wizard.

I'm thinking if they are sitting back now, it doesn't matter how many acceptable solutions you allow in, they just don't get a real life buzz from finding solutions/overcoming real life puzzles. They would only be happy when it ceases to be a real life puzzle entirely and it's just the dream of a puzzle. Zero step on up, all dream.

Well, that's what's coming up on my radar as a fairly strong blip. That doesn't mean it's right, it just means it's worth mulling over and checking is any evidence toward that exists.


QuoteThe ones who sit back probably don't want more acceptable solutions, they just want whatever fits the dream.

I get you now. I'm remodeling the campaign- I'll hopefully be using puzzles to unlock/reveal new areas of the sandbox, a task they can leave up to whoever they wish, while incorporating more combat and roleplaying elements. The structure of the campaign as I'm modeling it... I'd love to discuss elsewhere, I summed up some ideas here, its not for sure yet:


But basically puzzles will serve the specific role of expanding the size and depth of the sandbox as they start to scratch at the edges of the box. More when its not so late...