I like puzzles in my games. I’ve mentioned before, however, that they present a challenge of design for to their reliance on player ability and not so much character ability. In my previous post, I gave some tips based on one of my successful puzzle experiences for solving this problem, but a more recent experience with an admittedly worse-designed puzzle has brought into focus for me a separate and broader concern: extrinsic costs of game elements.
While much of my discussion will focus on this example of a puzzle gone somewhat awry, I think we see these extrinsic costs in many situations. For example, a player may avoid playing casters to not have to study the spell list or rely on others’ help or delay on their turn. A player might make sub-optimal combat decisions to avoid an unclear mechanic or save time (avoid calculating probabilities). The party might travel to a distant destination on foot rather than flying because they want time in-game to pass more quickly (wouldn’t spending a couple weeks hanging out in town be even faster?).
While we all expect extrinsic benefits from our RPGs (recreation, rejuvenation, friendship), and as a game master all of my costs and benefits are extrinsic, so it’s not inherently bad for games to have an extrinsic effect, obviously. But when it comes to player decisions, costs in terms of extrinsic resources (real time, pride, respect of peers, etc.) are difficult to balance against costs in terms of intrinsic resources (spell slots, gold, health, in-universe time, etc.), and particularly painful scenarios can result when extrinsic costs must be balanced against each other.
This brings me to my misguided puzzle and the extrinsic cost trap it sprang on (HuS). The puzzle was to find the access codes for each of the cells in the Hall of Mirrors based only on the codes for doors 4 and 8 (4826059371 and 8642097531, respectively) as clues from exploration (part 4). I had no manipulable puzzle program (part 1) though it would have been pretty easy to make. The conundrum came from the conflict between the cost in player time (part 2) and the cost to player pride from using character ability to get clues (part 3). In this case, I’m not sure how I would have addressed this conflict, since the intention was not for this to be a puzzle, at least not until they obtained the methodology from Ker Vedno where they had been told the keys could be found. (HuS), it seems, was happy to plug away at it until he obtained a solution, spending his days as if he were Agon trying to solve the puzzle. I only wish I had had an interactive program for him to test with instead of sending me attempts and waiting for feedback.
However, it did expose a major flaw in my prior description of running puzzles: not only do I ask the players to balance real time against in-game time (which I still believe is an interesting choice), but I also ask them to balance real time against their own pride as extrinsic costs. That can be a hard choice! And I doubt it’s often a productive one for players to have to admit they can’t solve a puzzle to save time. This problem might be resolved when time spent on the puzzle out of game has consequences in game. It might.
In the end, though, I don’t think it’s wise, or conducive to fun, to make the players choose what extrinsic cost they are willing to accept in exchange for intrinsic benefits in the game. Let’s be careful with our extrinsic costs, and I think we’ll much more be able to enjoy extrinsic benefits.
If you enjoyed this discussion, consider checking out some of my other game design perspectives, like the Aesthetics of Play with regard to traps or addressing Negative Possibility Space at the table.