Puzzles in RPGs are a something of a strange beast.
They can be a lot of fun for your players (and for you, as you watch your players work on them), but they can also be frustrating, time-consuming roadblocks preventing your group from having any fun at all.
Fortunately, there are four key elements you can take into account to help make sure your puzzles and riddles are fun, not frustrating.
This post was suggested by TT reader WeaveWarden, one of the friendly folks behind the play-by-post site Myth-Weavers. Thanks, WeaveWarden!
What Counts as a Puzzle?
A puzzle is any game-world activity that is played out and solved primarily (or entirely) by your players in the real world.
If the PCs are exploring a dungeon and come upon a room with a chessboard floor, in which are several life-sized chess pieces, and you hand your players a real chessboard with corresponding pieces to use in figuring out the solution, that’s a puzzle.
If the party engages in a contest of one-upsmanship with a local bard involving riddles, but the toughness of, and solutions t, those riddles are handled by die rolls, that’s not a puzzle.
The Makings of a Fun Puzzle
What constitutes a fun puzzle will, of course, vary according to your group’s play style and tastes. There are four common elements, though:
It can be solved in 15 minutes or less. A puzzle shouldn’t take your players more than 15 minutes to solve. If it does, the chances of the average group getting frustrated — and of that puzzle derailing the evening’s session — go way up.
If your players are clearly into it and still having fun at the 15-minute mark, by all means let them keep going. But watch closely for signs of boredom, and consider providing a hint or two.
It includes a mechanism for providing hints. The best RPG puzzles rely on a combination of player skill and character skill: your players solve them, but with the aid of their characters’ skills and abilities. One of the best ways to combine these two elements is through hints.
Since most of the fun in a good puzzle comes from your players figuring out how to solve it (rather than saying “Pippin tries to solve the puzzle. What do I roll for that?”), start things off with no character input. If someone has a clever idea based on a character ability, find a way to integrate that by providing a small advantage to your players.
Otherwise, leave out the character stuff until it looks like they might need a hint (or at the 15-minute mark, whichever comes first) and work in PC abilities that way.
It involves the whole group. Not every player enjoys puzzles, and chances are your group includes at least one person who isn’t overly fond of them. Any puzzle you include needs to take that player into account. If you know why that player doesn’t usually enjoy puzzles (perhaps because you asked them about it before the session), try to design or choose your puzzles accordingly.
You can also employ the time-honored GMing technique of simply asking them what their character is doing while the party tries to solve the puzzle. Sometimes it’s easier to engage players who don’t like puzzles on an in-game level than a real-world level — they’d like to contribute, but they’d rather base their contributions on their character.
It doesn’t have to be solved. This comes back to the simple formula for creating a successful encounter: There has to be a way for the PCs to progress even if they can’t solve the puzzle. There are lots of options when it comes to building this element into your puzzles — here are two suggestions.
The first is to make the puzzle part of a side quest or sub-plot — a section of the adventure that, by definition, can be skipped without negatively impacting the main event. The second is to include an escape hatch: an ambush that occurs at the 15-minute mark, a hint that will automatically be revealed after a certain amount of time or a change in circumstances that allows the party to bypass the puzzle entirely.
However you approach it, though, this is the single most important step in making sure your puzzle doesn’t ruin everyone’s evening.
In addition to the idea for this post, WeaveWarden also provided what was essentially a complete post unto itself. I ran with his idea from a general, more meta-level perspective, and that turned into this post.
WW’s post was more specific: He provided four examples of puzzles that work, each general enough to be useful for a range of groups and games. I’ll be presenting his work here tomorrow as a guest post.