Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tall As A House, Round As A Cup (The Trap of Puzzles in RPGs)

Tall as a house,
Round as a cup,
And all the king's horses
Can't draw it all up?

Puzzles and riddles have been a part of fantasy literature and games since their inception. Bilbo and Gollum partake in a gameof riddles in The Hobbit (the earliest rap battle on record?) . Zork features the famous riddle that starts this blog entry. I remember reaching the bottom of the labyrinth of the evil wizard, Werdna's, only to have to decipher the words, "Contra Dextra Avenue".

Puzzles featured in many old-school D&D games as well. Tons of old modules (especially the ones that were based off tournament modules) were full of tricks and puzzles. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, the Desert of Desolation, Ghost Tower of Inverness, and White Plume Mountain are all examples of dungeons featuring challenging puzzles. In my days as a DM and player, I remember numerous sliding chambers, rotating corridors, teleport rooms, and subtly sloped passages, all designed to confound the players and get their characters lost in the hostile underground, unable to return to civilization and rest in safety.

And for the truly evil GM's, there was Grimtooth's Traps.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you don't see as much of this anymore. Modern games focus more on mechanical, stat-based challenges than their predecessors did -- Character Skill vs. Player Skill.

But, I recently read a thread about this very thing. A GM was talking about his love for puzzles, and how, more often than not, they didn't work. His group was either not interested, or they got stuck and frustrated with the puzzle. If they gave up on the puzzle, his plot was derailed and he had to scramble to figure out how to keep the game going. I am a big fan of puzzles in rpgs, but as many GMs have found, it is hard to get right. Let's talk about some of the pitfalls and how we can avoid them.

The first thing to consider is whether your group is prepared for a puzzle or not.

It sounds silly. Of course your group is ready for a puzzle! They are experienced gamers who have played together for years. They were just complaining yesterday how endless combats were boring them. And there have been a lot of combats recently. It is time to change things up.

So, you decide to engage their intellects instead of their simulated sword arms by throwing an unkillable golem at them. All of their blows bounce harmlessly off the golem's steel skin. Any damage they do manage is immediately healed. But... a mere two rooms ago, if they can solve the riddle the imp gave them, they will know to put on the silver helmet they found last week, giving them control of the golem, who can then smash through the unpenetrable door they ran into two sessions ago...

... And they flail against the golem ineffectually until dead.

Even the best gaming groups are subject to groupthink and getting into problem-solving ruts. Sometimes, the groups that have been together, and have played with the same GM, for a long time are the worst. In my only slightly made up example, the group in question was used to solving problems one way -- the way they had solved them for dozens of gaming sessions -- with their weapons. Expecting them take such a sudden turn and refer back to events two sessions ago and solve a riddle was a little unfair.

Of course, if your group is used to Gygaxian goofiness, then have at it. If not, try warning them, or easing them into the puzzles. Set the tone by starting with something small, obvious, contained and preferably optional. Maybe there is a riddle to open a box or a door to a treasure trove. A map with some cryptic glyphs that need to be deciphered before the group can enter a secret area of the dungeon. As the weeks go on, and the group gets more used to the idea of puzzles in their games, you can pull out more complicated, devious, and referential stuff.

A simple, but important, thing to watch out for when introducing a puzzle is underestimating the time it will take for the group to figure it out.

I learned this lesson when I taught high-school. I was creating these beautiful tests, filled with problems of varying difficulty, covering all of the material we had gone over in previous classes, a true gauge of my students' skill... and no one came close to finishing. I talked to a veteran teacher, "I just don't know what is wrong. I tested the questions and it only took me 15 minutes to get through them. The students ought to be doing better."  The vet told me that I needed to give the students at least 5x the time it took me to do the questions. My 15 minute test was 75 minutes for them -- jam packed into a 50 minute class.

It makes sense, of course. When you write the test, you know what the phrasing of the question means. You know what you expect in an answer. Theoretically, you have been doing this type of problem much, much longer than your students. Most importantly, you know the answer!

Same thing with a puzzle in a game. You already know the answer, so it is clear as day to you. So, maybe you think it will take 15 minutes to solve your runic code, then the group will be off just in time to fight the Skeleton King before the end of the night. You'd better tell the King you'll be late because it is going to take way longer than you think. And as that 15 minutes turns into 30... and then an hour, people lose interest, which makes a solution take even longer.

So... make sure you allot enough time for your players to solve your puzzles. Even better, shorten them a bit. Instead of having to decipher 10 glyphs, make it 5. A snappier puzzle is going to keep peoples' interest more easily than a long one. Another idea for a long puzzle would be to introduce it at the end of the evening and allow people to work on it between sessions. That will give them ample time to discuss and analyze, as well as keep them excited about the gaming session through the week.

Another mistake that is easy to make is not engaging all your players with the puzzle.

Yes, your play on the Gaelic word for "hatpin" is genius, but if not all of your players shared your love of Gaelic, you're going to have a bad time. When you introduce a puzzle to your group, you need to make sure that everyone in the group will be able to play a part in the solution. Puzzles that are based on a skill or knowledge possessed by only one guy in your gaming group tend to lock out the rest of the team -- unless they are really, really short. Best to keep the puzzle away from someone's unique strength... and toward a more general problem that everyone can help solve.

Also, make sure the puzzle is big enough to accommodate the number of people you have playing. If you have handouts, make sure you have enough to go around. If the puzzle relies on players working together to solve a code on a map, make the map big enough so that the whole group can fit around it and work.

When in doubt, favor puzzles with multiple solutions, and puzzles that can be solved by the clever application of the characters' abilities.

In my previous role playing post, someone commented on the practice of "pixel-bitching" (which I knew as "pixel-hunting", but his version is so much angrier), which was when the designer of a computer rpg would require you to click on a specific pixel to solve a puzzle, or open a secret door. This is bad design in a computer game, and unfortunately, is an easy trap to fall into in a tabletop rpg as well. When your puzzle has a single solution which you think is so clever and awesome, and yet, so obvious, that your players, if they just think a little, will get easily... you are setting yourself up for a dead end.

Better to keep your puzzles loose and allow for multiple solutions. Better yet, keep the puzzles firmly within the context of the game. This keeps the players immersed in the game and it encourages them to use their character abilities creatively to solve your puzzle. Your players will come up with all manner of wacky solutions, making them feel like geniuses, and keeping you from the dreaded dead-end adventure.

So, when your stone riddle door is turned to mud by the PC mage, roll with it, friend, and let them enter.

And finally, when all else fails, have a backup plan.

When is all goes wrong, your players are stumped and everyone is frustrated, the worst thing that you can do is make that the dead end to your adventure. Always make sure you have a plan in case the puzzle cannot be solved. Be prepared to give hints. Be prepared to have alternate ways to get through the obstacle in question. Be prepared to totally change the course of your story line, but be prepared with something in the event that your group gets stuck.