I’ve been running my gaming group through a dungeon using Dungeonaday.com. In the last session the group came across a really well written puzzle and it got me thinking about the use of puzzles in games. Puzzles can be incredibly fun or incredibly frustrating. From the GM’s perspective, you don’t want to give the players something so easy it won’t feel like they have overcome anything, but from the player’s perspective you don’t want anything that is annoying and obscure in its solution. With this in mind here are 5 things that I think puzzles in tabletop role-playing games should do.
- Puzzles should be meaningful and fun
When a group encounters a puzzle in a game, it should have relevance to the game and be fun. Incorporating a puzzle into a doorlock is fine, so long as it isn’t the 13th one in a row, or if it is then there is a reason for the puzzle to be there. While working on a puzzle or riddle can be incredibly fun and let the players flex different brain muscles, they should fit and be fun for the group to tackle.
- Puzzles should be tactile and 3D
No matter what kind of puzzle you are dealing with, solving it becomes easier when you can visualize it, and visualizing it becomes easier when you can touch it and work with it. Any kind of prop that can be incorporated into the real world will be a blessing to the players. Even if it is just writing down the words of a riddle, seeing it can help players solve it more quickly. Think of this as a good guideline: If at all possible, the players should be able to interact within in a similar way that the characters can. This may be writing numbers on Jenga blocks, making sure you’ve got minis to represent the room accurately, drawing out the symbols, marking symbols onto a completed rubiks cube in order and then messing it up, or doing a stick figure sketch of the painting that holds the clue and giving it to the players. Whatever it is, if you can give them something to interact with, do so.
- Puzzles should be easy
Gamers are generally fairly smart and enjoy being challenged mentally, but unless your players are in the top-ranks of Mensa and really enjoy mind-bending puzzles, the puzzles you use in game should be easy to figure out. Even if the players solve it in microseconds, bypassing an easy puzzle will probably be more enjoyable than struggling for hours on a very hard one. Clues that are evident to characters (or to the GM) may not be remembered by players, which makes even easy puzzles more complex when used inside of a game.
- If puzzles aren’t easy, they should be skippable
If a puzzle isn’t easy to figure out, it shouldn’t bar the players from moving forward in the game. A complex puzzle on an optional benefit is great. The players should be challenged in order to get that awesome artifact. If the complex puzzle is on a door and the players can’t figure it out, have them make the appropriate skill rolls and checks until it is solved. There is nothing wrong with making players sweat a bit while trying to get through the adventure, but have an escape plan.
- Puzzles should be geared towards character, player, or common game world knowledge
Puzzles in games should be relevant to something the characters know, the players know, or is common(ish) game world knowledge. What do I mean by this? A puzzle that relies on arcane knowledge or cyberhacking shouldn’t be included if there is not mage or hacker type character in the group. A puzzle that relies on knowledge of ancient Byzantine architecture shouldn’t be used if the players don’t know about it. If a puzzle in a world where Ogres have a very unique background relies on information about Ogres, then the players should be fairly familiar with that knowledge. If you are designing a puzzle for your game make sure it has some kind of hook for the group to get the logic behind the puzzle.
Puzzles can be a great addition to any role-playing game, and they have deep roots within the genre. What are some of the best puzzles you have used? What other advice have you got on using puzzles in your games? How pissed would you be if you never found the puzzle I secreted away in this post? There is no puzzle, stop looking!