October 20, 2009

Puzzles-Make 'Em Do It

As a GM I enjoy adding puzzles to an adventure.  It breaks up a series of combats and allows the people who enjoy the mental aspect a chance to shine.  You really need to know your players however, because some people don't like them at all and your group may be full of those type of people.  Here are some pointers on how to add puzzles to an adventure and some things to avoid at the same time.

When I say puzzles I mean puzzles that involve words.  As an example here are two:

A) Remove six letters from this sequence to reveal a familiar word. BSAINXLEATNTEARS


Make it Relevant-There has to be a logical reason for the puzzle being in the dungeon in the first place. What is its purpose? Is it there to alert, slow, hinder or kill? Is it meant to keep out everyone for all time or will minions know the way around the puzzle?  Adding a puzzle just for the sake of adding a puzzle is a waste.  Make it serve some purpose.
The puzzle should move the adventure along. You want the players to solve the puzzle and feel as if they have accomplished something of importance. If the puzzle can easily be bypassed or is irrelevant to the adventure the players will wonder why they wasted their time doing it at all.

Make it Part of the Theme-Are the adventurers making their way through the lair of a demon?  A riddle about pixies may break logic or a sense of theme.  If in a demon lair make the puzzles and their answers something a demon would think of.

Prepare For Failure-It is possible the players will not be able to solve the puzzle. You need to be prepared in case that happens. Do not put the puzzle in the way of something the players absolutely have to get to in order to move the adventure forward. Another option is to allow a secondary way past the puzzle, but make it more painful for the characters if they choose that path.

Proper Length-A puzzle that takes two hours to complete is far too long. You want the players to figure out the answer to the puzzle in about 15 minutes.  Anything much longer than that and you will lose the interest of most of your players.  Frustration will begin to set in and soon that frustation can lead to anger with the game and you.
This is of course assuming the characters have all the information they need.  If clues to a puzzle are picked up during the adventure (perhaps clues to how a door can be opened) that is fine.  But once the information has all been gathered, the time limit comes into play.

Extra Copies-I like to make physical props for my puzzles. If the puzzle is a riddle I print it out on paper ahead of time. I also make extra copies. You want more than one person participating and if there is only one copy it tends to end up in the hands of one player and the rest are left out in the cold. You can rationlize this in game by simply stating the players quickly copy the riddle down.

Make 'Em Do It-Too often in published adventures a puzzle can be overcome by a series of skill rolls or even just a single roll. This is often done to highlight a not often used skill or allow for the fact that the players may not enjoy doing puzzles.  Personally I make all my players actually figure out the puzzle.  This is more a test for the players than it is for the characters.  It also allows for more immersion and personal involvement.
You can still allow for relevant skills to come into play. If the players are having a hard time of it, have one of them roll a skill and provide a clue to the solving of the puzzle.  Perhaps a letter in the riddle. A player might ask if his character's religious background may be able to help and you could have him roll to "remember" a tidbit of information that may help the players solve the puzzle. Personally I wouldn't give out hints or allow skill rolls until you sense the players are making no headway or are going too far off track.

As some examples we'll work on the two puzzles as shown at the beginning.

A) Remove six letters from this sequence to reveal a familiar word. BSAINXLEATNTEARS
The correct answer is BANANA. You arrive at this by removing the letters that spell the word SIX LETTERS. A clue you can give (perhaps when a character makes an Intelligence or Perception type of roll) is "Looking at it closer you think it has less to do with removing a numerical six letters. Maybe six letters has a different meaning."
One nice thing about this puzzle is that you can easily replace the answer of 'Banana' with something more relevant to your campaign. If you want the players to learn the name of the evil demon plotting to attack the local village you can replace the letters that form banana with the letters of the demon's name. If the demon's name is HUNGERMAW, the puzzle could look something like, HSUNIGEXRLMETATERWS.

Clues can include partial solving (after a successful roll), such as "You are pretty sure the 20 is a T."  If you are feeling particulary nice you can even let them choose the number they can attempt to discern.
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