Puzzles (Part 1, The Bad)

Puzzles have a long, fine tradition in tabletop gaming, right up there with arguing about grappling rules and casual racism. Whether in the form of a simple question or a campaign-spanning myth arc, puzzles have worked their way into the milieu of both the game itself and the player’s view of it. Even years later my players (and, for one session in particular, casual observers around the table) fondly remember some of my better puzzles, and I recall with similar vividness the worst puzzles I’ve ever been asked to solve because that’s sort of my thing.

Unlike running a small business, haggling, relationships, or other tasks that one might assume fall under the rules only tangentially, the rules for D&D barely discuss puzzles at all. Rather, they provide only the most meager advice and trust the DM to come up with something that players will like. The most thorough treatment of puzzles comes in, of all places, Savage Species, but many DM-facing books touch very briefly on puzzles. Most of the time the books discuss how to deal with a situation where the players are stuck rather than how to build a puzzle that doesn’t get them stuck in the first place. Given this framework, it’s not surprising that a lot of tabletop puzzles are really, really bad.

I think the root of it is all the way back in The Hobbit et al. I haven’t read all eight-six books in the Tolkien canon, but even with my limited knowledge I’m aware of two situations where puzzles factor into the storyline. The following contains spoilers, in case you’re working your way through all the world’s literature chronologically and you’re still at King Lear.

The shorter one is when Frodo et al arrive at Moria and are faced with a sealed passage and the inscription “The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter.” The solution is to interpret the instructions literally: when a person says “friend” in Dwarven, the door opens. This is a quick puzzle with a simple answer, one that was solvable because a member of the party spoke Dwarven and another member of the party made an appropriate leap of logic. Not a great puzzle for reasons I’ll discuss later, but not a huge problem.

The longer one is when Bilbo and Gollum enter into a contest of riddles, and this is where I think we start getting into trouble. “Riddles” hold a too-large place in the Venn diagram overlap between “puzzles” and “D&D” due in no small part to this exchange. On the surface a riddle looks sane: each puzzle is small enough to fit on a trading card, there’s a simple solution to each, there’s little or no cultural requirement, and there are no complicated steps, props, or descriptions necessary to understand or complete it. All it requires is a bit of roundabout thinking or the aforementioned leap of logic.

And therein squats the toad. A riddle assumes that your players can make a given leap, and generally they can. But DMs, and published adventures, rarely consider what happens if they don’t. If the players can’t figure out the monster’s puzzle, they can’t enter the dungeon, and the adventure stalls. If they can’t decipher the smarmy villain’s clues, they don’t know where he’ll strike next, and the adventure stalls. Good adventures come up with a contingency, allowing the players to progress if they accept that they don’t know the answer and accept some penalty, but many don’t.

Even then one of the upsides of puzzles becomes a downside. Unlike combat or other physical skills, a riddle doesn’t challenge the characters as much as it challenges the players. This is good until the players can’t solve it. Then it’s not about “Rogar wasn’t strong enough to lift the gate”, it’s about “you, the player, Hank, aren’t smart enough to figure out the riddle”. No matter how smart a player is, there are puzzles that will stump them, and the last thing a DM wants is for this game to become a referendum on the players’ lateral thinking skills.

“Aha!” shouts the DM who has read the rulebooks but not designed a puzzle, “I have a solution! If the player is stuck, have them roll an Intelligence check! A sufficiently smart character will be able to solve the riddle even of the player can’t, or at least to get a hint. Bow before my solution and weep!”*

And this works, for some groups, sort of. It does make sense in that a smart character may be able to solve puzzles their player can’t in the same way that I can’t double-jump. But it does make me wonder why I should bother with making (or, let’s be honest, stealing) a riddle in the first place if I’m going to treat it like everything else. Allowing a solution to come via skill check removes the point of giving the players a puzzle because it turns the puzzle into a character challenge instead of a player challenge. There’s no difference between “A pit! *clatter clatter* I jump over it.” and “A puzzle! *clatter clatter* I solve it.” besides giving the wizard something to do in between all their other skill checks. Even a hint doesn’t make a lot of sense for a riddle because a hint is a way of getting halfway to a solution. But a riddle is binary. There’s only one step between you and the answer and there’s almost no room for the partial success that a hint would provide. What player, after a decent but not smashing Intelligence roll, is comfortable with saying “I don’t know what the answer is and I have no evidence or experience to support my supposition, but I think it’s something you would find in a kitchen.”?

It’s far, far too easy to err on the other side as well. A quick, simple riddle seems like it’s fine on its face but tends to fall flat when presented to a group of thinking players. Riddles are a children’s joke for a reason. Giving easy riddles to a player doesn’t do much besides waste their time.

Ideal puzzles are a lot like ideal combats: they challenge players, they take some time and/or effort to resolve, they have points where the players can feel they are making headway instead of hurling themselves at a wall, and in the end everyone feels like they had fun. A very good riddle can satisfy as many as two of these points and most fail at even that. Regardless of what comparatively classic literature suggests, a D&D table is no place for riddles.

So what puzzles do work? We’ll cover that next time.

* — This is what I think other DMs sound like. It’s what I sound like.

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