In addition to offering up the idea for yesterday’s post, Four Key Elements of a Good RPG Puzzle, WeaveWarden (of the PbP site Myth-Weavers) also sent me four general types of puzzle suitable for use in most RPGs. Thanks, WeaveWarden!

He suggests exploitable security systems, things that have broken down, puzzles that aren’t really puzzles and their counterpart, puzzles that explicitly are puzzles. He frames them in fantasy terms, but his advice applies equally well to other genres.

What I particularly like about WW’s suggestions is that they offer ways to include more believable puzzles in your campaign — excellent alternatives to the stereotypical Resident Evil-style, “No one in their right mind would build this thing” variety.

Security systems with unintentional-but-exploitable flaws. Security systems that are intentionally puzzles are a big stretch of the imagination — what kind of crazy dungeon-builder would make it so that anyone with half a brain could access something’s inner treasures/secrets/etc? Traps and triggers designed to repel intruders seem much more reasonable.

Complex security systems, however, can’t always be perfect. By making some of the mechanisms of a security system visible to the players, a GM gives players the opportunity to figure out flaws in the system, something that for complex security measures could take some thinking and coordination. The resulting solutions can be quite fun, and if the security system is capable of resetting itself, there will be plenty of chances to try, try again.

For example, “Okay, Basil, you toss the flour in the beam of light and then duck. When the blade goes swinging by, Lifraumi will slow it with magic enough for Bor-Kams-Tiq to grab ahold of it and be carried near the mirror…”

When things break down. Some puzzles emerge not out of any particular direct intent by some adversary or architect, but out of circumstances that throw the nearby environment into disarray. Chaotic situations present an opportunity to add a note of urgency to puzzle-solving, and a flair for the dramatic exposition can make the whole affair seem far from the slow head-scratching process players may associate with puzzles.

This sort of puzzle can often shine when players have been exposed to the setting prior to its breakdown into puzzle-itude, so they have a better grasp of the opportunities available to them. Collapsing buildings where players have to wisely pick certain paths or try to invent new ways around are good examples of this. Previously-identified mechanical or magical forces gone haywire are also a good choice, because they afford players the opportunity to consider their previous knowledge of the things’ behavior or origins in finding the right solution.

For example, after a tour through a magical museum, they might come back to find several exhibits strangely activated, others missing, and the control measures disrupted. The players could try to fight and muddle through directly, try to get those security measures back in place, or (for those who paid attention to the tour) activate the exhibits that are historical opponents of the ones that are currently loose.

This wasn’t designed to be solved. There are a number of puzzling systems that could present a challenge to players attempting to make use of them without really knowing what’s going on.

The classic example of this is the overly-complicated waste removal system that adventurers navigate as a back way into a secure location. What cheesy cinematic adventure is complete without a romp through some maze-like ventilation shafts leading through whirling blades and blasts of superheated or supercooled air? Figuring out the contents of scraps of a mad villain’s notebook, jammed with mixed metaphors and poor handwriting or deciphering the activation instructions for a magic item built by someone with a weird sense of humor or a completely different mindset could also count.

Okay, it was actually designed to be a puzzle. These sorts of puzzles still have a place, with proper justification. Consider the semi-automated testing grounds of organizations that want to make certain their new recruits are properly indoctrinated. Knowledge-possession or worthiness-proving can be potent indicators of trustworthiness in some cultures, so there very well may be justification for a situation that demands that players solve something identified in-game as a puzzle.

Just to play with expectations, however, perhaps a dungeon puzzle was designed for the express purpose of harming people who figure out the “right” answer to the puzzle. If the evil temple starts unlocking doors when your players figure out the answer to a question to be “Truth, Justice, and the Way of Light,” the PCs had better be on their toes.

What kinds of puzzles have you used to good effect in your own campaign?