[d&d4e] Puzzles in RPGs

Started by AzaLiN, August 04, 2009, 10:25:07 AM

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Is anyone else here as big a fan of adventure games as I am? (Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Scratches, Nostradamus...)

I really like puzzles in games; maybe problem solving is a better term, but in adventure games at least, its a puzzle framework. As a DM, I like to include puzzles in my games, whether it be a simple cipher puzzle, interpreting a sketch next to a lever or statue, a riddle, figuring out how to get into a room...

Its challenging though, isn't it? creating and running good puzzles, which in RPGs tend to be more like obstacles, traps, or problems to solve or move past. I know that for sure, a Day of the Tentacle framework for puzzles in a Table Top RPG would fall apart pretty fast, because of the freedom the PCs have- and the power levels.

In your games, what are the best problems or puzzles that you gave to your group, or had given to you by your Game master?

I've found that it works best to just throw obstacles in the way without an obvious solution, and especially no planned solution, and let them go at it, but its a bit of a disorganized and inconsistent approach. Its always interesting seeing how they solve it eventually, and i'm amazed at how certain eventual success is unless I meticulously plan to thwart them. Its pretty cool.

How does everyone else do it? As time goes by, i need more and more new ideas to keep things fresh and non-repetitive. Can anyone present specific examples, or even resources? I'll show you mine if you show me yours ^^

ps: This is a neat little post by the monkey island guy, btw: http://grumpygamer.com/2152210

Ron Edwards


This topic needs a little more from you first - specifically, one actual puzzle that you actually played. Talk about its details, what happened, what the players did, how hard or easy it was, how it worked relative to the other issues of play, or anything else. I'm not looking for thousands of words, but even a short, solid couple of paragraphs will make this thread work.

Everyone else, hold off from posting, please. The Forge is not a survey site. Others' experiences will be great to read about as well, but for now, right now, the thread author must provide an account of actual play.

Best, Ron


That make sense.

1: There was the first cipher I made, a while back: There was a piece of parchment with about 5 lines like in hangman, a pen, and the words Beowulf [insert line number, i forget which, a passage relating to treasure] written in elven; so the trick was for them to search the library for said book, which unfortunately couldn't be a fictional in-world book without me making up gibberish for it, so after they did so they got a physical copy i had on hand; and then to figure out that the numbers referred to line number instead of page number, an aspect of poetry writing; and then that the text had to be written in elven, like the inscription.

It went well, took about 10-15 minutes, but took some trial and error at the end because they thought the number meant something else for a while. Overall, i felt the puzzle felt arbitrary (though it was a scholar's sanctum they were breaking into) and that i overestimated player knowledge a bit; i'd also prefer to not use outside aids, or such obviously puzzle-based design as a cipher-locked secret door- something more integrated would be better.

2: a gargoyle holds a bowl, and written in giant is something like: i offer up my red, hot sticky life to Atreus. So, to progress to the altar room beyond, they need to fill the bowl with blood, but its a good aligned party, so part of the challenge is finding an ethically suitable source of blood, and then heating it somehow if it had to be transported. They also need a translator, but this is a minor inconvenience, and I can add one easily enough in a room nearby since the character who speaks giant can't read it apparently. An easy one, but should be fun to run.

I think this one will go well.

3: Another involves drinking the near-but-not-quite-lethal dose of a poison in a chamber- 40mL for an adult in a suicidal chamber where people offer up their souls to a gem to be reincarnated soon afterwards. there's a child-size cup, 30mL, an adult size cup, 70mL, and a super-size cup, 100mL, and a fountain. Too much and they die, and too little and it wont do much nor trigger the effect- a captive elf will describe the needed dosage and results of drinking it, and how it will unlock the gem, and how his partner died in a botched attempt. They came across the poison fountain earlier, and though they tried to get the goblin to drink it, the goblin was prudent and they wisely waited for more information before indulging, aided by an inscription of a person drinking and their heart flowing towards a gem, which luckily seemed ominous to them. Figuring out the dose will be easy for them using the cup puzzle, and the sized cups adds a bit of comedy to the otherwise dark situation.

4: a huge pit trap surrounded by large sarcophagi; not strictly an obstacle, but more of a danger: the way they solved this was interesting because they dragged over every one of the big stone coffins and connived to lean them against each other using opposing force to wedge the doors open so they could shoot down at the ghouls below through the gap. It wasn't necessary, but I'm glad they did it because it was hilarious to run. It took some decent rolling to pull it off i decided, since it was a pretty demanding feat of improvised engineering. They were pretty happy about pulling this one off.

5: navigation puzzle, where all passages lead in the same direction, and are blocked off, but its only apparent after exploring thoroughly and mapping along the way; they then went looking above for another way down (at each node there was a ladder leading down to the underground area they were in, multiple entrances) which led to the final area, estimating where said way-down would be, and found it in a barn under some hay, leading to a ton of loot and a snake boss. They figured it out pretty quick once the map was near-complete, and felt good about solving it, since the cave-ins were recent and it seemed logical.

Simon C

I've had largely very negative experiences with puzzles like the ones you describe.  It seems like they're pretty successful in the group you play with, but as a player, I find them intensely irritating.

I think it's something about how a lot of the games where you'll find this kind of puzzle, you'll also find encouragement of intense character-perspective play, that is, you play with what your character knows.  Puzzles seem to break with that type of play.  To me, puzzles always felt like this weirdly seperate part of play, like you'd play for a bit, then stop and sit around trying to figure out a riddle, and then jump back into playing again.  It was weird and jarring.

I'm not sure if I'd find it as annoying now. 

Of the examples you posted, the ones I find most appealing are the ones that reward exploration of the game-world through the characters.  So, the pit trap and the navigation puzzle are more appealing to me.  It seems like they're your preferred ones as well.  Is that correct?  I guess that's because these puzzles don't encourage as much disconnect between player and character, but that's a guess.

I've run a couple of puzzles as well.  The most successful of these was a room with a grid of tiles on the floor.  Each tile would light up and spark with electricity when you stood on it, and stay lit.  Stepping on an already lit tile would give you a jolt (a few HPs damage), and touching a door while any tiles were lit would give you a big jolt (a die for every tile lit).  The players tried out a few things first, before one of the players figured out there was a route through the room that would result in all the tiles being lit when you got to the door on the other side.  The cool part about this was the character standing on the last tile, with all the tiles lit, worrying about whether touching the door was the right thing.  If he was wrong, the shock would probably kill the character.  When the character opened the door without a shock, everyone cheered.

So that was ok, I guess because the puzzle itself was pretty simple, and the real challenge was about risking your character on having the right solution. 


QuoteOf the examples you posted, the ones I find most appealing are the ones that reward exploration of the game-world through the characters.  So, the pit trap and the navigation puzzle are more appealing to me.  It seems like they're your preferred ones as well.  Is that correct?  I guess that's because these puzzles don't encourage as much disconnect between player and character, but that's a guess.

I entirely agree with you- they don't break the players out of the game, and they're the most natural sort to occur without some outside force, DM or architect, building it into the scenario. The navigation one is my favorite by far, and without copying it i'd like to introduce a lot more that are like it, or as successful as it was.


I also find that puzzles interrupt flow and pacing less if there are more of them, and if they're optional or if the tackling-of them is player initiated, and if they're 'naturally occurring' and/or story/character/setting/scenario integral. When they're less-so than that, it helps if they're funny and if there's a joke involved, often some irony of conflicting character and player knowledge, or a blatantly absurd obstacle for the players that is sometimes circumvented by players defying it or refusing to solve it- like a riddler who gets tortured or threatened for the information instead of answered.

Only the best-designed and integrated puzzles, I find, can be taken really seriously. If i made the poison puzzle too serious, it would suck; however, if one of them dies and we all laugh at it (while being horrified), it'll work out excellently. What I want to be able to do is make the really good puzzles though...


The SomethingAwful.com forums has a 60 page thread titled "What's your worst experience with role-playing?", and poorly thought-out puzzles have a pretty significant representation in it.  The big complaint voiced there is something you've already largely avoided, though, that puzzles can too easily turn into a game of "guess what the DM is thinking".

Intentionally avoiding a planned solution does a pretty good job of circumventing this, although there is still an issue.  If you're open to the players overcoming the puzzle in whatever manner they want, how do you decide which plans they come up with are valid and which are faulty?  If you're too harsh the puzzles starts slipping back into "guess what the DM is thinking" territory, while if you're too lenient the players can just say any solution they can think of and it becomes less a challenge and more a story-telling moment (this can actually be pretty cool, although it depends on the type of game you're running).  

I think that the fact that the pit and navigation puzzles focus more on in-game exploration is one reason they sound appealing, but I think that their open-endedness is another huge draw for them.  They seem like the puzzles with the most loosely set 'win' conditions, allowing for a lot more flexibility of thought to be put into solving them.  The gargoyle one sounds interesting to me for this reason, too, although it's a bit more controlled.  The cup one and the translation ones both have pretty rigid answers they have to find, and seem like they both run the risk of being really frustrating and game-flow-destroying if the players approach them the wrong way.  Those are the two that seem to me to toe the 'guess what I'm thinking' line, although it sounds like you're pretty good at offering proper information/clues to keep things from stagnating too badly.
Hello, Forge.  My name is Misha.  It is a pleasure to meet you.

Callan S.

Strictly speaking, it's always guess what the GM is thinking - it can't slip back into it. <soapbox>Gamers tend to blame it on the other guy, rather than attribute it to themselves giving up imagining it as fictional events</soapbox>

AzaLiN, you've already talked about some things that integrate them more. Another might be a real life time limit - after which, as one suggestion, all the players roll their character int and the best roll gets told the solution (or just tell them all the result after the time limit ends). If they figure it out before the time limit, kudos and XP or whatever. Indeed, just kudos is enough, but who doesn't love currency as well!? One issue, perhaps a murky one, is how often we tend to play out a scene as determined by how long the fictional events take to play out in real life. It's a very 'were here for the fictions benefit, the fiction isn't here for our benefit' way of doing things. A real life time limit on completing the puzzle may seem odd (or perhaps it wont?), but it makes play about the puzzle, rather than play being about the fiction and how long it decides to play out.


Quote from: Callan S. on August 05, 2009, 08:33:51 AM
Strictly speaking, it's always guess what the GM is thinking - it can't slip back into it.

Yeah, this is a good point.  I guess maybe my focus should be more on how to make the way the party finds the solution less. . .blind?  The frustration came from when several options are presented/thought of that all, on the surface, looked equally valid, but only one would work.  The walls of the room sprout spikes and move in to crush everyone, so some players try to force open the door to get out and others try to use some of the junk laying around the room to jam the walls.  The correct answer was to cast stone to mud on the ground and hide under the level of the walls, but nobody guesses it so they all die.

I guess there are to main ways I can think of to make this more manageable.  If you give the players clues/more information they can make a more informed decision, and if you leave the solution open-ended it allows the players to come up with creative answers.  In the above example this might be a distorted spot on the stone floor, where someone had used this solution earlier, as a clue, or just letting the players roll/autosucceed at opening the door/jamming the walls as open-endedness.  I feel like clues are somehow less satisfying, just because it forces the players to conform to a specific solution they didn't come up with.  On some level you have to read the DM's mind even if there is no pre-decided One True Way to solve the puzzle, but I feel like there is a big difference between 'guess the specific thing I'm thinking' and 'guess what I'd allow'.
Hello, Forge.  My name is Misha.  It is a pleasure to meet you.

Daniel B

Good to see others aware of the "Grumpy Gamers" work    X-)
Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."

Callan S.

Hi Misha,

Well, with the preset solution, you can sort of measure it's difficulty in terms of the 'multiple choice's involved, the more choices, the harder it gets as the more options a player has to consider. From what you describe, there were dozens of options, perhaps even more than a hundred. Part of that difficulty (something that multiplies the difficulty) is that the options aren't explicitly presented - if you presented them with four explicit choices, that makes it alot easier. Perhaps too easy with four. Though it also removes the 'player invents their own move' factor.

Speaking of open ended solutions, there are even more options, hidden ones at that, to consider. That makes it a really hard difficulty level. Indeed I would think the difficulty is impossible to control - it could spiral to really high levels, perhaps even OVER NINE THOUSAND!!!!!!1! (sorry, bad dragon ball meme joke).

What I'd recommend is to put a choke on that difficulty by giving the players two chances to solve the situation. The first would be an open ended solution they could try. If they fail that, they get a second chance with X number of explicitly presented options (with X being perhaps just a (low?) single digit in size to keep it at the difficulty you want it). If they beat it on the open ended solution, they get alot of bonus XP or bonus treasure or something, because this is the awesome imagination challenge mix thing (though beating it on the multiple choice is good too, it's just not as hard/not engaging the difficulty of dealing with an SIS).

Well, oddly enough I like the solution I just came up with (and it's almost ironic in that I'm finding a solution I didn't think of before now).


Spike puzzle... I think the key to that puzzle is to slow things down.

Make the spikes move in real slow-like, so they have time to try 4-5 failed options before hunkering down and doing some real problem solving. They'll obviously try to open the door, or jam the mechanism star-wars style- gotta give them the chance to rule out the most obvious options early on. Otherwise, they'll die for sure- that's why timed puzzles suck sometimes... the nice thing about good puzzles is the player isn't pressured to produce a solution on the spot, they can think about it and experiment a bit, which encourages looking for the best solution instead of the fastest maybe-solution.

I'd allow them to jam the mechanism- temporarily- while they problem solve to find a way to get out in actual safety, and I'd put a big fat clue for the jamming solution which basically functions as a stop on the timer until they get a better idea. A weird mark on the ground like you said would be a good clue- it wouldn't actually provide a hint, but if you came up with the answer it would partially confirm it for the player, right?

As for the solution itself, better give the group one or more scrolls of stone to mud earlier that adventure, because the wizard might not have something like that memorized, and he may use several of the scrolls too early by being too clever with other problems earlier. If this isn't done, there's a chance that the DM is just murdering the party at this point :D

Further, the group may decide on an option that, although clever, would not work, and maybe just because of knowledge they lack about the unseen parts of the puzzle, and thereby release the mechanism to try their chosen solution. Again, there could be over 100 possible solutions to this puzzle, more if the wizard has strange spells memorized, which can lead to dozens of extra combinations! The scrolls will help out as a metagame hint- best to integrate it somehow, perhaps with the previously-solved-this-way-theme - but giving too many hints ruins the fun utterly- its the DM leading the players, and not the players being clever and brainstorming. Just be sure to emphasize that the floor is SOLID STONE.

Since they are wearing metal armor, depending on the strength of the spikes i may decree that the fighter gets pinned with everybody else hunkering between until the trap designer comes along to investigate why the trap is jammed and simply captures the party. There's no quicksaves in [most] TTRPGs, so there shouldn't be a lot of TPKs going around {though 1 or 2 deaths is fine!] In fact, assume in this case taht the party will get captured like this, because the stone to mud solution would be easy enough to overlook, and this way the party really can feel clever for overcoming the puzzle, since you 'built it for them to fail,' and therefore reward them with the trapper coming and getting ambushed because the party's fine.

Least, that's my 8am thoughts on the subject. It seems like a basically good puzzle, just too hard and killy with 1/100 working solutions- better if it was 1/10 workign solutions somehow, perhaps steal the wizards spell book and just leave scrolls. anyway, i'm napping befor ework

Daniel B

The spike puzzle violates Ron Gilbert's "should be like a box, not a cage" rule. Meaning, if they get frustrated, well, tough luck, they're screwed.

Personally, I've found puzzles up to the level of those 7th Guest/Myst type computer games, in addition to being impossible for the GM to build and implement (and balance!) regularly, they're too slow for tabletop gaming. I've put puzzles on the level of what you  might find in N64's Legend of Zelda or Banjo Kazooie (I'd give more examples but that's the limit of my experience).

For example, there was a "puzzle" I'd posted about earlier in Actual Play; the PCs were presented with a gadget that pulled a troll apart at regular intervals, making them think it was in trouble but in fact it was a trap .. later in the game the puzzle was that they needed to find a piece of equipment that the leader of a guild of Tinker Gnomes had never heard of before. The solution is somewhat obvious, and indeed my players were able to figure it out relatively quickly.

Anything less obvious and I find they tend to get frustrated quickly (even if the puzzle SEEMS really obvious to me). An example of this type is when the PCs would find just a magic gift hidden on the top of a chandelier in a run-down mansion. All they needed to do was burn a rope holding up the chandelier. The rope was out-of-reach, high above near the ceiling. To burn it, they needed to line up a continual-flame torch with a backwards telescope (to magnify the torchlight). They figured out the magnification, and saw the rope holding up the chandelier in the other room (which itself was out-of-place, as all other chandeliers were held up by metal chains) but left the door closed every time they tried, so the light couldn't fall on the rope. Needless to say it was frustrating as a GM to have them so close to the solution!

Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."


Personally, I love inserting the three P's (puzzles, props, and physical challenges) into my games.
I have hundreds of them.

It's a welcome 'break' from rolling a die (or flipping a card, or pleasing the gm and/or group concensus).  But can't be over-used.  Usually only averaging once or twice a session (and my sessions are long - 8 hrs).

example - actual blacksmith puzzles (where you try to figure out how to separate the two twisted pieces of metal).
I'll throw them at one of the players when they get manacled and tell 'em that when they can get the pieces apart, their PC is free.

It's WAAAYYY more visceral and challenging than letting karma (dice/cards/etc) decide it for you.
And you should SEE those player faces light up when they figure it out and hold the pieces up for all to see like a 7-yr old beaming, "I did it!"    That player would never have remembered rolling a 17 on his "escape artist" check, but he'll never forget when he himself saved the party from the approaching ogre guards by using his noggin to escape his bonds.

Note:  I still let their stats/skills influence the challenge.  For example, if they rolled high, they get the easier puzzle or more hints, etc. 

And, I try to either a) use challenges that involve most/all of the party, or b) make the challenges short - 5-10 min max.


Anyone tried to use puzzle to address premise or character issues?

I once used a puzzle that asked the player to touch a stone engraving while naming someone they truly love.
One player named her character close companion (the two players where not a couple IRL) and I asked her if the door open.
She said "I don't know", she was kind of hoping that I tell her or not if there was true love between their characters.
I told her that she have to choose as a player if her character have such feeling.
We discussed a little and when I asked again if the door open, she said "no".
The player playing her companion liked the answer, and his character opened the door naming the other character.
It was a nice dramatic moment.

A other puzzle I improvised asked the players to choose from a set of small sculptures, one that represent something they hate and to offer it as symbolic sacrifice to a stone idol. One player tried to push a other player character to make the offering. But that player resisted and it was starting to escalate into a argument when a third player decided to make the offering.
She choose something representing a element of her past to sacrifice. I dint describe the small sculptures, each player could invent any sculpture they wanted to be in the set. I was hoping that the player would reveal something about how their character sided of felt toward the present issues of the game, but it was ok. I took note about the player highlighting this element of her background in hope of using it in a other game session.

These are not "real" puzzle I suppose. I could have removed the puzzles "instructions" to complicate things, but I was worried that if I do this, the players would try to resolve those puzzle like a game puzzle and would be afraid to "risk" their character on them. Well, there was also no apparent physical risk involved. Each time the puzzle was about opening a sacred or magical door.