I had the pleasure of guesting on the Dungeon Master’s Block podcast. We discussed puzzles and this post is the outline we started from. The podcast is more in depth with input from great people, you should listen to it:
Puzzles and riddles have long been a staple of dungeon crawling and campaigns in general and most Game Masters feel drawn to them from time to time as a design element that just seems to fit. It’s no secret that I love them. At the same time, players and GMs alike raise valid concerns about puzzles and some say they have no place in the game. This controversy arises when a player finds that puzzles don’t serve the aesthetic they come to the table to experience, as they are well suited to some and harder to craft toward others.
Because players at any given table are each there looking for a different experience, sometimes dropping in a puzzle that serves as an engagement trough for one player (maybe, one focused on the Fantasy) and an engagement spike for another (maybe a challenge junky), can be good for both players’ engagement curves. But, if you’re trying to craft a puzzle to appeal to the whole table at once, here are some tips to consider that might help you steer a puzzle into each player’s wheel house.
A complaint I see often against puzzles in RPGs is that they test player knowledge and not character ability. The reason this reasoning is popular is because it resonates with a significant segment of the gaming population. I believe it resonates with these players because they highly value a Fantasy aesthetic of play, meaning that they play the game to make believe they are someone else somewhere else. A puzzle relying on out-of-character knowledge is a real low point on the engagement curve for this player. While there should be troughs in engagement for each player, apparently these lows are so deep that they have left a bad taste in the player’s mouth concerning puzzles in general.
So how can a puzzle to be better tailored for players who are in it for the fantasy? First, quality props; a good puzzle prop can make the player feel more like their character instead of less, drawing them further into the game instead of breaking immersion. Second, an in-character connection. This can be knowledge checks that provide clues, bonuses from character features, and helps from exploration. All of these things can help the fantasy player feel more like their character solved the puzzle, not themselves (or another player). Third, realistic background and stakes. When a puzzle feels shoehorned into a dungeon, it breaks immersion. On the other hand, if a puzzle fits the theme of the dungeon and has outcomes that make the scenario feel real, it can strengthen immersion.
I don’t mean to imply that these measures will be enough to make the puzzle a Fantasy engagement high, that’s a tall order. The goal with these efforts is to soften the trough enough for it to still be a good experience for that player (who needs troughs like anyone else) while allowing players who love other aesthetics to get an engagement high from it.
For players most interested in a compelling narrative, puzzles might seem like a distraction from the story and at worst, a waste of time. As I’ve said before, these troughs are a vital part of every player’s engagement curve, but a player can start to wonder what they’re doing at the table when a puzzle causes them to experience an engagement low that lasts for a significant part of the night.
For these players, it’s important for puzzles to advance; whether this means that they are kept short or that they have phases with clear progress being made to help keep an end in sight. If a puzzle is going to stretch on for a while, it could help to have narrative advancement happen during the puzzle with dialogue, progress, and other events interspersed with puzzle phases. Having enemies pursue the party through the puzzles can help keep a narrative style of pressure on while they move through and between phases of the puzzle.
How does a player express themselves during a puzzle? Well, fortunately, a player often takes responsibility for his own expression and will usually choose for themselves whether to engage in their character voice, get up to character appropriate shenanigans, and help/hinder the puzzle solving effort, thereby making the puzzle an engagement peak for them. Alternatively, he can choose to take a back seat and have a trough to cool off from the last bout of expression engagement.
While the GM can help expression players find opportunities to exploit, they can often control their own interest curve by deciding when they are going to get into character and not. One way to help them engage with a puzzle, though, is to leave a lot of latitude for solving the puzzle in different ways so they can express themselves through the solution.
Puzzles can often close off parts of the world your players may desire to explore. While the puzzle is not exactly a peak for a player who strongly engages with discovery, it does build up the suspense for when they do find their way beyond the puzzle and discover something new about the world.
For the puzzle to be a good experience for these players, the reward beyond it should include knowledge about the game world and new hints at things to discover in the future. The puzzle is the door and the discovery should be the reward.
Another option is design the puzzle itself so it teaches something about the world. I have recently released a puzzle generator that will allow you to create as many puzzles as you want in just minutes per puzzle. These puzzles are particularly suited to the discovery aesthetic because the players uncover a picture of your choice in the solving.
The most inherent aesthetic of a puzzle is Challenge. When Fantasy chasing players say they dislike how a puzzle uses player knowledge more than character skills, this is exactly what makes it an engagement high for players who enjoy Challenge. They like to have their personal player skill work to solve problems in the game. The puzzle is a peak in their engagement curve and these players are the real reason for utilizing this tool.
For this aesthetic to be optimally served by a puzzle, the puzzle doesn’t have to be hard, but it needs consequences for failure, it needs rewards for success. Gradations of success can be valuable for making challenge apparent without being punishing. Good attempts can result in partial success even if not complete. Genius solutions can result in a better outcome than the normal.
Almost everyone at your table is looking for engagement in this dimension, it’s the most natural form of entertainment from a tabletop RPG. Though it’s okay for the puzzle to represent a dip in this style of engagement, it could also help to form the puzzle so that everyone has an opportunity to provide input to the solution. When the players work together to find the solution, it can be a memorable moment for the party. Done right, puzzles are a great way to build union at the table.
Players come to the table for a variety of aesthetics, 3 or so per player usually, so you can usually find a way to make a puzzle appeal to all of them on some level, if not as a peak, then at least not as so much of a downer that they leave hating it. So go forth! Use puzzles with confidence!