Puzzle This Out: Using Puzzles in RPGs

27 Apr

Fair warning: I love puzzles. I like solving them. I like making them. I especially like watching players working to solve a puzzle, the way they laugh in pride and relief when they figure it out.

Now, not everyone likes puzzles in their games. If your players find them more frustrating than fun, then the puzzles are never going to be a fun time. But if you make a quick google search for puzzle ideas, almost every result you get is going to include people saying that puzzles never work, that they don’t have a place in games, that a puzzle killed their father and they will not rest until every riddle in the world is destroyed.

To a point, I understand their complaints. Puzzles, thrown in without thought or reason, can detract from the enjoyment of them. On the other hand, done right and with willing players, they can add something special, a new type of challenge to change up from the usual death and destruction.

When Puzzle Don’t Work

There are certainly some times you’ll find puzzle won’t work. First, and perhaps most importantly, if your players aren’t interested in puzzles, don’t try to force it. Some people game for the hack-and-slash, or for more social aspects of role-playing, and they just don’t want to deal with riddles. If they don’t like them, for goodness sake don’t try to make them.

Appropriate logic can also be a stumbling block for making puzzles enjoyable, especially for players who want that sort of logic in their game. No one would ever really lock their valuables up behind a riddle in a world where locks and magic exists. The key to a world-destroying abyssal portal, forged by the gods of old, should not be a matter of a patterned series of colors recognizable by the first eighth-grade art student to come across it. It simply doesn’t make sense that things that are meant to prevent people from finding/unlocking/powering up something that they shouldn’t can be overcome by a good brainstorming session.

Finally, puzzles hit a stumbling block when frustration sets in. You plan the puzzles, you know the answers. Players don’t. What you think is simple or obvious, they might find obscure or impossible. If the puzzle is a roadblock that prevents progression through the story, then a difficult puzzle can lead to players getting annoyed. And being annoyed while a GM smiles smugly at how obvious the answer will totally be once you get it is not a recipe for fun.

Making Puzzles That Do Work

So let’s talk about how you can make sure your puzzles are avoiding those types of stumbling blocks. First, if you want to know if your players like puzzles you could ask. Crazy idea, I know. Ask them if they’re interested in puzzles and riddles and you know what you need to know. Don’t be bound by asking once and sticking with that one answer, though. Be open to feedback, both direct and indirect. Direct feedback is when your players straight up tell you what they like and don’t. It works well, when it happens, but it doesn’t always happen. Indirect feedback is what you’ll see more often; if they look frustrated, if they give up trying to solve your riddles, if they complain when puzzles come up… Well, if you miss those sort of signals, maybe you need to pay a bit more attention. Or get glasses. Whichever on.

What about making puzzles that have logical purposes within your game? Like I said, valuable things are not, in real life, locked away by a riddle instead of, oh, I don’t know… a lock? Here are some reasons that someone might make puzzles:

  • Craziness: Who doesn’t love the motif of the mad wizard? You’d have to be crazy to use a puzzle to lock your vault, so make the person who did it crazy, and it all works out.
  • Tests: Puzzles are terrible locks if you don’t want someone to open something; on the other hand, if you just want someone to struggle to open something but eventually get it, then a puzzle is perfect. Puzzles are good as a “prove your wisdom” style challenge.
  • Accidental Obstacles: What if the challenge or puzzle wasn’t meant to be a serious obstacle, but through neglect, accidents, or other mistakes, winds up being one? Consider the magical gatekeeper that was meant to be a simple bit of fun, but has gone out of control, demanding answers from anyone? Or maybe an ancient, ruined tower has magical puzzles seeping through its very walls, like semi-conscious spirits? One time, I had an accident in a laboratory researching elemental planes lead to a puzzle; the only way to put out the elemental fire, for instance, was to find which source of water was from the elemental plane of water, it’s opposite.
  • Non-Puzzle Puzzles: Sometimes puzzles aren’t really puzzles. For instance, if two people are writing in code to one another, and you have a partially-complete cipher, the figuring out the rest is a puzzle. It makes sense that two people might write secrets in code (and they wouldn’t intend other people to be able to solve it… Lucky for you, you found a half-burned codebook on that last corpse), and having only part of the code makes it more of a challenge that just following a full cipher. This sort of challenge has all the elements of a puzzle for the players, while still making sense as an attempt to stop the players from finding something.

Those are just some ways to make puzzles make sense in your game. Of course, there’s always one more reason that works… “Because I planned it that way.” Players have to be able to have some willing suspension of disbelief for the game to work, so why not willingly disbelieve the whole “puzzles make dumb locks” thing?

As for the frustration aspect of puzzles, a lot of it can be avoided with proper planning on your part. First: make puzzles easy. That sounds like terrible advice, doesn’t it? Well this is my blog, so you’re stuck with it. If you create the puzzle, you know the answer, so of course it seems easy to you. For players, though, it’s going to be harder than you think. So make the puzzles slightly easier than you think necessary, and they’ll still be harder than you realize for players.

The other way to avoid frustration is by not making the puzzles a roadblock for the stories, if at all possible. If the players can’t figure the puzzle out, there should be a way around it. Puzzles could lead to bonuses, for instance, which are helpful but not necessary. Or a door that players need past can be brute-forced open, if the riddle password can’t be guessed. There should always be an option for getting by the puzzle without solving it, just in case it proves harder than you expect.

It’s also advantageous to consider having more than one solution to your puzzles and challenges. And you don’t even need to think of them! I mean, do think of them, if you can… But if the players offer you a solution that is logical, smart, and completely different from the answer you have written down, take it anyways. They never need to know you hadn’t thought of it first.

Final Thoughts

Puzzles aren’t for everyone. I love them, some people don’t. I think they add a unique challenge to a game when sprinkled in among combat and social encounters. If you want to include them, just remember: Make sure it’s fun, logical, and desired. If any one of those three elements are missing, your cleverly-crafted puzzle challenge may fall flat. If more than one of those elements are missing, then why are you even bothering putting it in?

What do you think? If you like puzzles or hate them, let me know in the comments. If you have some clever set up for a puzzle, or a challenge that you think is worth sharing, share it!

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Posted by on April 27, 2017 in Role-Playing Games


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