Courtesy of Jeff Rients comes this comment on Mike Mearls’s LJ:
I want to have my cake and eat it too. Give me a system where the default puts the onus of clue-deciphering and people-influencing on the player, but give that player some sort of scarce resource they can spend to make the issue mechanical. “Listen, Mr. DM, I’m sick of trying to figure your damn riddle out. I’m just gonna spend a MetaPoint to turn the problem into a Knowledge (History) check.”
Independent of the fruitful and interesting discussion of another way to handle mental stats in D&D, Jeff’s comment jumped out at me because I think many RPGs — and gaming groups — need a mechanic like this.
I’ve been on both sides of this one: watching my players beat their heads against a problem and wishing there was something I could do as a GM that didn’t feel like a cop-out, and descending into drooling boredom while trying to figure out a puzzle as a player. Both problems could be neatly solved, or very nearly solved, by this simple rules tweak.
What do you think?
I first saw this concept as plot points in Serenity, but I’m sure it has been around before that. Jeff puts it in a way that makes a whole lot more sense. Something to just say “hey we aren’t getting it. Our characters might with the information they have, but we aren’t our characters, so lets leave it up to character stats.”
It semi-seems like a cop out sometimes, but in the end it makes sense and it can get past some real stoppages to keeping a game moving.
I’m considering implementing something like this in my game. Give the guys another use for the action points they seem to ignore all the time.
Or maybe not action points, but a 1/session clue card that each player gets. They can turn it in at any time for a clue, a hint, a conclusion that they missed or something similar
Perhaps not to solve the problem, but certainly to get some hints for it.
I’m just looking at starting a Shadowrun campaign, and I think the mechanics of it allow for, and even spell out, that player knowledge and character knowledge are 2 different things. If a character needs to solve a riddle challenge or other esoteric puzzle, they make a skill check to see if the character solves it (or a part of it). If they don’t have the appropriate skill they can default to the appropriate ability score (logic or intuition) to help. I think it even said something like: ‘We don’t make players swing swords or cast spells, so why should we expect them to solve game-specific puzzles?’ Even at the time I read it it struck me as something that should have been obvious to me (but wasn’t). It works the same way for influencing NPC’s.
Of course, if someone wants to roleplay everything and figure it out for themselves, they are welcome to, but there’s no need to do that if they don’t choose to (and thus no feeling like a cop-out if their character rolls a crit success on figuring out the Mafia don’s maglock code is his daughter’s birthday backwards).
In D&D, I used to be famous for putting in annoying puzzle/clue challenges, and in almost all cases it wasn’t interesting or enjoyable for anyone, so I’m glad Fanpro made a more clear distinction between the character and the player. (and when I go back to D&D, I will take this with me) For example, they even spelled out that a player’s character, if he has a 1 charisma, will generally be treated that way and shunned, even if he is an outgoing player. At the same time, a shy player with a 6 charisma should still be treated (by the NPC’s in the game world) as the life of the party, charming, etc., even if they have a hard time playing a character that way.
Another feature of Shadowrun that I love and that would help in these situations is the use of contacts, or NPC friends and associates, that most players have. Can’t figure out the puzzle? Call your hacker friend and have him work on it and get back to you. (Phone-a-friend anyone?) I think having a Scholar or Thaumaturge contact in D&D could be a lot of fun!
I agree that metapoints are a very good thing for games to have. In the game I am designing I have “Fate Points” that a player can spend to do one of three things:
1) Have an automatic success. (Might be revised to be a huge bonus instead, or the option will be dropped entirely.)
2) Re-roll. (What the players use it for the most.)
3) Get a hint from the GM. (No one wants to use this option. It is vague and the players hate having me “help” them.)
Players get 3 fate points at the beginning of each session. The points do not carry over from session to session.
After reading this article I now know what I need to change about option #3: instead of a hint from the GM, the player can choose to roll against a character’s trait to solve the problem.
I’m still stuck on #1. A reroll or a trait roll doesn’t guarantee success, so why should one of the other options do so? I think I’ll change it to 2 points guarantee success, and spending all three points grants a critical success.
Wow! TT not only is informative, but a great place to brainstorm too! 🙂
Well, D&D comes with a couple of Letters. Give me an X, give me a P.
They`re used as a coin to buy some artifacts, at least as far as I remember, and It’s fair that, if a Riddle is done to be solved by the players, and they cannot afford it, maybe the XP to be rewarded for its solution could be dropped, but as always, as a agreement between the players at the table. Gurps 4th use XP in this way.
I’ve played with and without metapoints, and I’m fond of them in general (especially as a player). I’d divide them up as tactical and strategic:
As a GM, I think tactical metapoints (Action Points, etc) are worth a character level in D&D terms, and the game should reflect that in difficulty. In my regular game, the PCs don’t need them. In the Midnight campaign I want to run, they will be necessary. Tactical metapoints are great for negating bad dice nights, “taking it to eleven”, or ensuring that the heroes Last Best Hope actually works. (Y’all did know that Luke used all his Action Points to blow up the Death Star, right?)
I’m not so sure about strategic metapoints (Plot Points?). Something that allows me to figure out the puzzle, solve the mystery, find the Magic Dingus, etc… I think this is better handled directly by the GM. I will use in-game tweaks like a chat with a friend who points out the flaw in your logic, or a scrap of a note in the next room, or another clue.
But yes, I can see the value of either interpretation.
(Telas) Iâ€™m not so sure about strategic metapoints (Plot Points?). Something that allows me to figure out the puzzle, solve the mystery, find the Magic Dingus, etcâ€¦ I think this is better handled directly by the GM.
The thing I like so much about Jeff’s idea from a GMing standpoint is that it takes away the awkwardness.
As a player, saying “We’re just not getting this, can you give us a hint?” is going to feel weird. There’s also the possible insinuation that rather than just making one scene boring, the GM is running a boring game.
As a GM, saying “You’re missing something. Here’s a hint” is going to feel weird. And it could carry the insinuation that the players are dumb.
With a formal meta-mechanic, all of that awkawardness (and potential awkwardness) could be avoided.
I think I implemented this idea without truly understanding its implications during the very first game session I ever ran. At the time, my juvenile logic was “well, ya can’t expect the players to be able to do same stuff that the characters do,” and though that basic premise holds, I can now see the more nuanced balance implied in some sort of meta-resource for player-selected deference to presumed character capabilities.
It’s probably worth noting that gaming groups should understand the fine distinction between using meta-resources as a way for players to overcome difficulties versus this concept as a way for characters to overcome difficulties, and then pick which side of the line (or which balance of the two sides) would work best for them.
On the one hand, I think this is an interesting idea. On the other hand, I feel like it’s actually barking up the wrong tree. The problem is that when these road blocks appear (usually in the form of an intentional puzzle, sometimes just the players are blocking on where to go next), they usually appear because something in the game is not actually what the game is about. If the game really IS about the PLAYERS solving riddles, then the GM shouldn’t allow the players to bypass them. Give hints perhaps, but completely bypass? No. But most of the time, the riddles aren’t the goal of the game.
Dogs in the Vinyard shows a good way to sidestep around the issue. The town creation does present a form of puzzle, but it’s a puzzle the non-player CHARACTERS can’t solve. It’s up to the PLAYERS, through their characters to decide how to resolve the puzzle. The GM is instructed to reveal the town (the puzzle) in play. But the game is not hurt if the players never figure out the butler did it. What’s important is that the players pass judgement on the town, and put the town at ease over the murder. They might do so by falsely accusing someone. They might do so by convincing the townspeople that while they will never find out who the murder is, the town must still move on. Or the players might actually figure out it’s the butler, and they might or might not hold the butler responsible for the murder. But no matter what, the game can NOT grind to a halt, unless the players withdraw from the game, or the GM fails his duty. Once I said “You’ve found out everything there is to find out, now it’s time for you to resolve this.” Simple.
Of course what really gets around this puzzle issue is the GM letting go of any attachment to specific outcomes. If the GM isn’t attached to the players completely cleaning out the dungeon (old school D&D), and the players miss half the dungeon because they don’t search in the right room for a secret door, or can’t answer the sphinx’s riddle, so be it. If the GM isn’t attached to the players determining who the villain is (this session), the fact that they missed a clue in the mystery isn’t a problem. The only thing is that the GM must be prepared to deal with the alternate outcome. The GM might have to write up a new dungeon for next week, or he might just have to have a monster burst out of the secret door. The GM might have to have the villain strike again. And if the group isn’t vested in the idea the players must solve the puzzles, the GM can even just give the answer after it stops being fun to try and solve the puzzle. Consider mystery novels, which people enjoy in part because they hope they can solve the mystery before the author reveals all. But we still enjoy the book to the last page, whether we managed to solve the mystery or not. And the author almost always reveals all (and if he didn’t, that’s just fine too, we will still probably enjoy every minute of reading the book – and if we’re upset by not knowing the answer, we’ll re-read the book, or ask others who have read it what they figured out – and the book might even have multiple anwers, which could result in some interesting discussion [and this last bit is what is at the core of enjoying a game like Dogs in the Vinyard – what do YOU make of this situation? Why did YOU come to that conclusion?]).
My only concern would be that it’s a bypass of a challenge for ALL players elected by ONE player. Thus, a handfull of players can be enjoying puzzling through a logic problem, or riddle or whatever, and another player can say “Bo-ring!” spend a meta point, roll their int, suceed, and ruin the fun for everyone else. We tend to assume perfect world scenarios where this doesn’t happen, but it’s just something for a DM who tries out the concept to keep an eye on.
My gaming group is composed of brilliant people. In fact, I’ve found a majority of gamers to be atypically inclined when it comes to puzzles, riddles, etc.
It’s my philosophy that there is a greater danger of players over-playing their character’s riddle-solving ability rather than under-playing it. As such, I say let the players sweat it. As Frank says: “…what really gets around this puzzle issue is the GM letting go of any attachment to specific outcomes.”
As a player, some of our best games involved a riddle that drove us mad.
Rick – Just because one player’s character solves the riddle in the game doesn’t mean that the GM must reveal the answer when a player spends the meta point. The GM just has to say “Okay, Thoran the Brave solves the riddle and the party moves on.” This way the other players can continue to work on the riddle when they have the chance to do so. And if the other players would rather solve the riddle than play, take a break for dinner or something.
Off-Topic: I like solving riddles, but there have been plenty of times when the answer was lame and I felt like the GM had wasted my time. If you are going to create a puzzle/riddle for your game make sure that 1) any riddle has only one unique answer, 2) the solution is within the grasp of anyone with reasonable intelligence and resources, and 3) the puzzle has pattern to it.
I once had a GM chuckle gleefully about how we couldn’t solve his “scimitar” riddle until I and everyone else at the table showed how the riddle was so poorly constructed that any object that was sharp could have been the answer. In fact that is how the riddle was solved, a bunch of bored players sitting around the table calling out every single item that had a blade that we could think of.
And in another game the answer to a riddle was the name of an obscure Greek God’s second-cousin’s dog or something like that. More of a trivia question than a riddle really. Wow! Someone read a book on mythology and now was an intellectual who had to show off what knowledge he had of obscure facts! Woo-hoo!
And if your puzzle consists of flipping random switches in the right order without a method of determining what that right order is (a CoC moment that I would pay to be able to forget) it isn’t a puzzle. It is an experiment in probability.
VV_GM you talk a lot about puzzles and how they are constructed. That got me thinking. How a puzzle is constructed can be a big detriment to the players ability to solve it. They aren’t sure what to look for in a lot of instances. The puzzle pieces just don’t stand out to them.
While this might be a little off topic there is a great example of good puzzle making being found in adventure video games. Onimusha, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, the old Monkey Island and Kings Quest, etc. Puzzles in video games always look brighter than what is around them, or they are highlighted when you move over them, etc. Something points out that this item is important. Players often don’t get that “Switch A and B correspond to the two gargoyle heads here” because they don’t realize the gargoyle heads are part of the puzzle. If they are somehow highlighted the players actually have the pieces of the puzzle to put together.
I think video games learned this lesson a long time ago because they had the visual medium to work with. The first couple of times that they realized people just couldn’t find the pieces of the puzzle they did something to make them stand out. With tabletop it is a little bit harder. Obviously a realistic dungeon wouldn’t do anything to point out the secret doors. A realistic dungeon environment wouldn’t be able to support the horde of creatures living in it without outside access either. It requires some suspension of disbelief just to assume the dungeon is set up in a completely controlled way.
So what we have to decide is how far do we want to stretch that suspension. Do we write down every piece of the puzzle for the dungeon on the sheet so it is easier to put them all together? Draw little images on index cards and when a player encounters them hand them the “piece”. This may just be a representation that it is fresh in the character’s memory. (Which is my personal favorite interpretation.) It may be a little too Out of Game for some people though. I’ve found including potentially 4th wall breaking elements helps keep players in a game mood though.
I still fully support the meta=point idea, but I think making the whole puzzle more of a meta-event would help the players be able to solve it without having to rely on the characters solving it.
I agree John that you need to decide when designing a puzzle how the solution will present itself to the players.
Let’s face it – puzzles are a really stupid security device. When was the last time you left a riddle on your doorstep when going on vacation? You just lock your door and leave it at that (at least I hope that you do). And if you want something to be hidden the last thing that you would do nowadays is create a puzzle for anyone to solve. You would make sure that only people who needed to know were informed of the location. Nothing cryptic, just a protocol that must be adhered to under penalty of imprisonment or worse. That is how most secrets have been protected throughout history – fear of the consequences of the secret being revealed.
But in a game, use the suspension of disbelief and make the puzzle one that can be solved by anyone. It just happens that no one else ever had the knowledge, incentive, or both to do so before the PCs showed up.
And give the players logical links between the puzzle elements. Not doing so is like taking a jigsaw puzle and hiding a few pieces from the player’s in another room. Not until the players are nearly done with the puzzle will they realize that some pieces are missing. And unless there is something to point the players into the next room to find those missing pieces, well the puzzle is just an incomplete exercise and a waste of their time.
Perhaps I’ve been burned by this one too many times. I can think of three GMs I played with who made puzzles and riddles for the purpose of showing off their own intellect against that of the players. Each one made the same mistake though, and that is to create a puzzle or riddle that only they could solve. Why? Because the answer could not be discovered through the puzzle itslef. It either had to be known, or guessed. This isn’t to say that puzzles and riddles should be easy, but they do need to be fair to the players.
Totaly a pet peeve of mine. Like when you are discussing sports and someone says “Bet you can’t guess who the 1965 Blah Blah’s quarterback was named after!” Yeah, I would bet that I can’t guess either. Now what satisfaction does it give you that you know an obscure and stupid detail that I don’t? Note how trivial has trivia in it. I’d rather focus my efforts on things that matter.
Weighing in late, but…
I tend to run mystery campaigns, so this comes up a lot. Previous posters have pointed out many of the things I’ve come across, so I won’t spell them out again. I generally use three solutions at the same time:
1. Point out the mechanical options already available to them. In my experience, players usually only feel “cheated” if they felt like they were supposed to figure out something themselves and ended up making a die roll or burning a point because they couldn’t. If problem-solving skills/feats/powers are on a character sheet, they should be just as useful as an attack bonus or defense score. Make sure that your players know that, when their character arrives at a crime scene, it’s okay to say “I make my Search check,” or if they have clues in hand “I make an Investigate check.”
2. “Meta-points” work better as feats, class features, or something that must be bought. Handing them out is like saying “guys, I know you need help, so here are a few bennies.” Let them pay for it, and they’ll want to use them. “Okay, Sherlock, to the untrained eye the half-empty cup on the counter means nothing, but due to your incredible powers of deduction you realize…”
3. I usually set a “spinning wheels” time limit, such as “okay, guys, you’ve been at this for 20 minutes. Would you like a hint?” Sometimes they’re enjoying themselves and deny the aid. Other times they are thankful for the assistance. Sometimes, instead of a hint, I’ll let them re-roll a botched roll from before. “You know, the last time you were in the room you didn’t see anything important, but now it dawns on you that something NPC A said doesn’t jibe with what you found in NPC B’s apartment…”
(Walt C.) I usually set a â€œspinning wheelsâ€ time limit, such as â€œokay, guys, youâ€™ve been at this for 20 minutes. Would you like a hint?â€
I love this idea, and I’ve never thought about doing something like this before. Awesome.
Looking for spinning wheels (either by setting a time limit, or just paying attention to how the players are working the problem) is a good solution if you do use puzzles.