So we’ve talked a bit about occasionally doing something other than combat in your campaigns, and I intentionally left out one of the most popular alternatives to combat I’ve ever seen used by GMs:
I hate puzzles – I should get that out there from the start. I pull the stickers off Rubik’s cubes, I Google crossword clues, I even ordered back issues of Nintendo Power one time so I could finish the Adventures of Lolo because come on who builds castles like this.
Puzzles, like riddles, are often only fun for those who know the answer and get to sit and snicker while their poor victims work their way through the process without all the information. Relate that to the innately-tense GM/player interaction (the fact that we have a screen to hide things behind to begin with), and it exacerbates the feelings of frustration and being mocked that many players already harbor.
So when it seemed like puzzles were every GM’s answer to “let’s try something other than crotch-punching kobolds this week,” I decided to look for more palatable alternatives, like sudden fissures and raging infernos tearing the game world asunder.
I’m sure those are unrelated.
But the more I GM, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that any tool is worth considering when it comes to keeping your gaming styles diverse and pleasing a wide variety of players. It’s just a matter of handling those tools properly and applying the right one to a given situation. A lot of my GMs growing up had effectively been using a claw hammer as a screwdriver – that doesn’t mean the tool itself was broken.
What to Avoid
Puzzles most often show up in a campaign as a way to bar passage forward and force players to “earn” the clue, gear, or plot hiding behind whatever the puzzle is on. Puzzle locks and passphrases on large, magical doors are pervasive in fantasy settings, just like clever admin passwords or virtual riddles are in modern and sci-fi settings.
It’s significant that, in order to get most players to do a puzzle, you have to turn it into a literal wall barring them from going forward. That should give you a clue as to just how eager most players are to do puzzles in the first place.
“We can put these three colored squares in order, or we can fight an entire room full of beholders with convex mirrors. …Everybody cool with going the death-by-mirrors route?”
But, if you can avoid some of the pitfalls many GMs fall into with puzzles, they become much more agreeable as a creative obstacle rather than an obnoxious stalling tactic.
Avoid: Puzzles as dead ends
The last thing you want is the game grinding to a halt, and a puzzle can do exactly that if you’re not careful.
If the puzzle acts as a wall, make it clear the PCs can go sideways to get the pieces or clues they need to solve the larger puzzle. Create side rooms, tasks or objectives to allow for lateral movement, and make it clear they relate back to the overall puzzle that blocks the way forward. Doing the side rooms is not an avoidance of the puzzle entirely, it just keeps things moving and promises that, if they do the side tasks, the main task’s difficulty will become noticeably easier as a reward.
Avoid: Using the same type of puzzle over and over again
Don’t repeat yourself with puzzles – or at least, don’t force players to repeat themselves in solving them. If the players reach one room with four unlit torches and have to light them all to move forward, don’t use a similar trap later with a minor adjustment and force them to figure out the same sequence again.
Instead, you can play homage to (and tacitly reward them for) solving a given puzzle by having that puzzle element feature in large room puzzles later in the same dungeon/campaign. Next time they reach a room with four unlit torches, the challenge is the chasm in the middle of the room making it hard to light the other two. They’ve already solved what opens the door – and that knowledge makes the chasm itself the new thing to puzzle through.
Avoid: Having puzzle solving be the only thing going on at any given time
If you have folks who like puzzles, let them direct the flow when they’re feeling it, but count on something for the headscratchers in the group to do if they’re just baffled by a given puzzle. Otherwise, you have three or more players sitting around waiting on one or two to riddle through things. That leads to pressure, feet-tapping, friction and frustration within the group itself – none of that makes for happy gaming.
Give the folks who will never like puzzles chances to roll, tumble, jump, hit, push and pull their way through the puzzle to help enact the will of those directing. Make puzzles with coordinated pieces that cannot be executed by a single person so that those not puzzling through the solution will be making rolls to do the things required to unlock the massive mechanism.
Back to our oh-so-Zelda example of four lanterns – someone has to swing across the chasm to light the torches. There may also be an eye carved above the door where someone has to shoot an arrow to trip a timed mechanism before the fire goes out. Add to that some block-pushing goodness or additional positioning requirements, and everyone is suddenly involved in solving the puzzle whether they’re using their brains for it or not. It also creates a nice teamwork environment, which is what the best puzzle dungeons should always encourage.
Avoid: Relying on the players’ problem-solving alone to get through
I mentioned I hate puzzles. I also know people who love puzzles but hate them in games. Some folks do not want to do sudoku when they could be blowing stuff up. Just because you’re good at puzzles or like to do other sorts of puzzles doesn’t mean you’ll want to do them in your tabletop games or that you’ll be comfortable being the go-to puzzle solver in every run.
Count on the bad day. Count on your eager puzzle-solvers and capable clue masters having gotten only 3 hours’ sleep the night before due to crunching on a big work or school project. It’s like having a flat tire – the whole thing could grind to a halt.
Your puzzles need to be more durable, to be able to limp along on their own. That means having a variety of ways to get to the answer that fit a variety of problem-solving styles. That means giving ample clues to the answer – more than you might think are necessary to solve it. It also means having an eject button so that players can say “we give up” (without having to say it, per se) if everyone is having an off day that day.
Be prepared for that. If you want to lessen the rewards when they hit the eject button, you can – but the ultimate reward is that they can still move forward if they’re just not interested. Swallow the ego and the hours you put into the masterwork riddle and just keep the game moving forward.
All About Angles
All the examples and advice above really revolves around one thing: the moment you decide to play with puzzles, make sure you have a host of ways to solve or circumvent them so that they don’t become a wall to beat one’s head against. Forcing players into a deadlocked puzzle scenario feels more like punishment than gameplay.
Make your puzzles more backdrop than barrier, and you may find that they become some of the more memorable facets of the game – and not in the bad way, for a change.