I have a very organic approach to my role-playing games. As I run games for people and play in other people’s games I simply incorporate things that work into my style and eliminate things that don’t. One of the many options available to game masters that I have always ignored are puzzles. Really it wasn’t until a recent comment from a Critical Hit listener that I stopped to consider why this time-honored game mastering option never worked its way into my lexicon. And it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I managed to put my finger on it: Puzzles discourage role-playing.

First off let’s define puzzles and their verbal subset, riddles:

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a puzzle as “a question, problem, or contrivance designed for testing ingenuity“. In role-playing game terms a puzzle is a challenge that requires the players to decipher a predetermined solution, usually without rolling dice or role-playing to find an alternative. If your character comes across a complex polydirectional locking mechanism and your game master allows you to roll wits+enigmas to solve it, you did not just solve a puzzle. If instead your game master presents you with a riddle that you must figure out and answer, you are staring down the barrel of a puzzle. Clear? No? Well, read it again, I don’t have all day.

So why do puzzles discourage role-playing? It’s not necessarily obvious, but puzzles have four(ish) interconnected aspects that make them disruptive

1.  A Puzzle Must Be Solved Out-of-Game First

Let’s go back to riddles:

a stone mask glares down at you from the wall, as it begins to speak its eyes glow a baleful green. “In order to pass you must answer me this riddle! The more you take away the bigger I become, until the last is taken and then I am undone.”

Cool right? So what happens then? Well if you’re like most players you simply stroke your chin and try to figure out what the answer to the puzzle is (assuming you don’t already know it, more on that later) but are you doing that in character? No, probably not. It is very difficult to solve a puzzle “in character” because your mind automatically wants to solve the problem and will access all relevant information stored in your braindrive. This includes all your non-game experiences, which your character doesn’t have. Meeting with a challenge that exists simultaneously inside and outside the game causes the player to make a decision as to whether he or she will figure it out in- or out-of-character, and the decision will almost always be the easiest alternative, out-of-character. This leads directly into the second problem.

2.  Puzzles Discourage Being in Character

Let’s say that you decide to approach the puzzle from your character’s perspective, you then have to answer a series of questions:

  • Is my character smart enough to get this?
  • If she is, is it in character for her to solve the riddle?
  • If it’s not, what do I do about it?

Forgetting for a second that if the answer to the first and second questions are “yes” the flowchart leads you back to problem 1, let’s talk about potential strain on the character by setting up some examples.

Katie is smart enough to solve the puzzle, but she feels that her character, Sally J, is not. This causes strain on her because although she may have figured out the answer, she must decide whether her character would be able to.

Brent is not a ‘puzzle-solving type’ but his character, Dr. Pacheco definitely is. This causes strain on him because, even though in-character he should be able to solve the puzzle he, as a player is unable to.

So what do they do then? Spend some time reconciling why one character came up with something and the other one didn’t? That works, but if it requires you to stop play and figure out why something is happening, is it the sort of situation you want in your game? Should Katie just tell Brent the answer and have Dr. Pacheco answer in character? It’s an option, but does that reduce Katie’s accomplishment? Should we just say, “well someone got it, let’s move on”? That would certainly de-emphasize that awesome glowing stone mask, wouldn’t it?

Amazingly though, games are set up to deal exactly with this kind of situation which leads me to the next problem.

3.  Everything Else Can Be Solved Through Role-Playing or Dice Rolls Except for Puzzles.

If they weren’t dealing with an actual riddle then Katie could roll her abysmal Int+Puzzlesolve score and Brent could roll with his +27 bonus and get results that made a lot more sense for their characters. But there’s no point in setting up an awesome scene, roll once and have the GM tell you “Turns out the answer’s a hole’.” And that’s the problem, every other issue in an RPG can be resolved either through role-playing (and usually finding an alternative route through role-playing) or by relying on the game’s own system for conflict resolution. Not so with a puzzle.

4.  Player-Based Results Are Unpredictable

Granted, part of the role-playing experience is that give-and-take between GM and players, but when you introduce an element that exists outside and inside the game, the mix becomes somewhat unstable. Here’s a similar situation: You know that guy in your gaming group who knows more about the setting than the GM? You know how sometimes he uses that information to make the game go the way he wants? I and other awesome Internet gaming columnists have devoted millions of words to dealing with that guy. So why would you want to create a situation like that? When you introduce a puzzle into a game, chances are one of your nerds has seen one like it. So what do you do if the players are already familiar with that style of (or even that specific) puzzle? Assuming you don’t care about the previous issues what happens when your cleric just grabs the puzzlebox and traps the demon in it before it can even start gloating? You move on, most likely.

So what happens if the opposite is true? What if none of your players can solve the puzzle, and they just sit there for an hour staring at each other until one of them finally says “can we just roll for it?” Do you let them? Do you rationalize why it’s OK for you to give them a hint? Or why one of them should probably be able to figure out the answer? Once again you’re in a situation where you’re having to stop your game in order to figure out the result of a scene, and if you’re doing that then no one’s in character, and if no one’s in character, what’s the point?

Now, I have had discussions about puzzles before my big epiphany, I’ve never been a big fan of them so I always bad-mouthed them to other gamers, and here are some of their arguments.

But puzzles challenge the players’ critical thinking!
That’s right, they challenge THE PLAYERS’ critical thinking, not the characters, people run RPGs to step into their characters’ personas, and puzzles discourage that.

But puzzles are fun!
And so is riding a bike, but usually we don’t incorporate that into our games because it’s hard to ride a bike in character.

You didn’t talk about Kevin, who is good at puzzles and plays Thomas, who is also good at puzzles!
You’re right, but in my experience every group has a Kevin, a Katie and a Brent. A game should allow its players to play characters that are not like them. A puzzle-heavy game encourages the opposite.

You’re taking this too seriously!
I am, grrr, RPGs are the most important thing in the universe! Seriously though, think about the game you enjoy the most, RPG or otherwise. You know why that game is as much fun as it is? Because someone at some point began to take it seriously.

In the end my beef with puzzles boils down to the fact that even at their smoothest there tends to be some amount of reconciling or ignoring that needs to be done. And there’s no point in having an element in your game that, by design, disrupts the narrative.

The Author

Rodrigo

Rodrigo

Nobody really knows what Rodrigo's deal is. He is a perpetual enigma, an unknown quantity, the X factor. He's the new kid in school, the unlisted number, the person all your friends talk about, but you've never met. How can one person be so mysterious, you ask? THAT IS ALSO TOTALLY A MYSTERY! You can try to keep tabs on him on twitter by following @fearsomecritter, but that probably won't help.

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24 Comments

  1. Brian G.
    November 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm — Reply

    I don’t play role playing games but I’ve listened to the last 2 seasons of Critical Hit. I can easily see where adding in puzzles to a game would be fun for the people playing it despite your dislike for them. You need to know why your playing the game I think. Are you interested in emersion into that world or are you playing to have fun? I don’t think you’re the kind of person that would like puzzles, Rodrigo. But others might.

    Besides, Torq seems to deal with puzzles all the time. His last puzzle was called “How do I get off this wall”. His face failed.

  2. Navarre
    November 9, 2010 at 4:05 pm — Reply

    I agree with all of your points. And yet…Yes, puzzles are fun.

    I have never had a player complain about the inclusion of a puzzle or feel that it detracted from either the game or their gaming experience in any way.

    There is a certain amount of surreal nature that goes with D&D because it is absolutely, unequivocally impossible to entire separate the player and the character. You only work with it as best you can, much like an excellent actor playing a fascinating character.

    If everyone enjoys it, then it can be included if desired without anyone feel they were cheated out of a realistic gaming experience.

  3. November 9, 2010 at 6:48 pm — Reply

    I agree for the most part but I think that you should at least give it a shot once per gaming group to see how they respond. Also The Fear the Boot guys had some cool stuff to say about puzzles and riddles if anyone’s interested.

  4. Navarre
    November 9, 2010 at 6:55 pm — Reply

    A bicycle riding analogy isn’t as effective because physical skills don’t correlate directly into D&D. There are rules to cover that. That’s what Balance checks are for.

    But puzzles, like D&D itself, is a mental exercise. The goal is to provide mental distraction and fun. Both D&D and puzzles do that and I don’t think the two must be mutually exclusive unless the players don’t enjoy solving puzzles in-game.

  5. Wiglaf Smith
    November 9, 2010 at 10:31 pm — Reply

    As for the bike analogy, I think he means the real life act of riding a bike. I follow and agree to your argument Rodrigo. Would it be more effective to, say, have something puzzle like but multiple solutions will solve it? Maybe just have a puzzle that can either be solved normally or just have one’s Bugbear Barbarian just break the glowing face to navigate around it? That might boil it down to just a skill challenge, but it does present the player with options, which seems fundamental to the act of role playing. Might sound good but this idea probably neither solves the issues you brought up nor works better than a skill challenge equivalent.

  6. Bill
    November 9, 2010 at 10:46 pm — Reply

    To me there are many kinds of puzzles. I have a GM that loves to give us hints about a creatures weaknesses (naturally, via the setting.)before we run into the creature. We figure it out we get the bonus of defeating the creature BEFORE it eats half the party. (who’s gonna miss just one Gnome anyway?) And I have incorporated puzzles into settings so they could escape. “Find the parts of the key and figure out how to put it together and where it goes” was a fun puzzle solving adventure for my players.

    The examples I just cited, in my opinion, allow the players to stay ‘in character’ while doping out the puzzle. The examples you cite are a specific kind of puzzle: Riddles. and I, personally, think they are exactly everything you say they are. I do not like riddles in role playing games. Because it seems like its almost always the extreme of no one can think of the answer, or someone already knows the answer and its time to move on. One nice use of the riddle I did experience recently was at a magic door.

    Gaming with same GM I mentioned earlier we encountered a magic portal we needed to get through to reach our destination. We answered the riddle and the door opened. we went through and found ourselves in some very bizarre situations that made it even harder to reach our destination. You see we gave the WRONG answer. and instead of barring our way the door just sent us somewhere else. Which made it take longer to get to our destination but introduced additional adventure along the way.

    Excelsior, True Believers!

    • November 10, 2010 at 1:14 am — Reply

      I used a riddle as an example because it was easiest, that way I didn’t have to come up with a graphic for some kind of rotating dial or cut-up picture of a kitten. I think what I brought up still applies though, it’s difficult to stay in character when your GM drops ‘Rush Hour’ in front of you and tells you to solve it http://www.puzzles.com/products/rushhour.htm

      As far as failing the puzzle creating a fun situation? Sure, a good game master is prepared and can make failure even more interesting than success. But then what happened? did you make your way back to the magic portal and have to guess correctly? or did the adventure allow you to circumvent the magic portal?

      • June 4, 2012 at 7:46 pm — Reply

        yeah… I used to like puzzles very much…then I fogrot a bit about it… back in France I used to have amazing calm moments with S. puzzeling… I miss it a lot!I’m sure you’ve had a nice Monday closure with the rascals…

  7. @lantis
    November 10, 2010 at 1:21 am — Reply

    I agree that this analysis of puzzles isn’t entirely complete. I do agree with the points you make about riddles and traditional logic puzzles presented in a D&D flavor. There are some puzzles you neglect, the ones you do have to solve through role-playing. A murder mystery is a puzzle, there are pieces you put together to solve the question of “who done it?” Laying a trap to expose a traitor in the king’s midst is a type of puzzle, testing the character’s ingenuity. Just trying to figure out who the traitor is would be a puzzle in and of itself.

    Then there are the simple ones which characters can figure out through trial and error. A temple to Pelor has a room with tiles bearing the following symbols, a sun, a star, a moon, and a cloud. If the character steps on anything but a sun tile a fire trap is activated. After a few steps on the wrong tiles the characters could logically put it together, or the rogue could decide to team up with the fighter to disarm the fire trap. Multiple solutions, the characters figure out the solution in game.

    • November 11, 2010 at 9:12 am — Reply

      I see what you’re saying. Although I would argue that whereas ordinary puzzles must be solved to advance the plot, a mystery actually is the plot. Furthermore a mystery may have a set answer like, say, “The buttler did it” but it almost doesn’t matter as much as WHY he did it, or what impact that has on the characters, both of which exist outside the structure of the puzzle. I think that is why I didn’t think to include them, but yes, if you want to incorporate them into the definition then Mysteries are a kind of puzzle I like.

  8. November 10, 2010 at 1:00 pm — Reply

    Aside from the points Rodrigo puts here, I’ve found very few situations where puzzles don’t feel contrived – there’s frankly very little reason for a puzzle to block the characters’ way without it being some kind of intentional test, and those don’t have a place in some campaigns, especially mine, when I try to get away from “Dungeon Crawl” feels.

  9. Navarre
    November 10, 2010 at 7:54 pm — Reply

    Does this mean I should scrap my “Dungeon of a Thousand Riddles” adventure?

  10. markw
    November 11, 2010 at 7:34 am — Reply

    Rodrigo, do you not consider the “How do we fire up the towers on the moon with the fuse broken?” situation at the end of the Four Against the Void campaign to be a puzzle? On the surface, at least, it was a logic puzzle with a predetermined answer that the players had to solve before the quest could proceed, and it wasn’t “solved” through dice rolling in a skill challenge.

    To me that was a great example of how a logic puzzle can be integrated into the story without causing much disruption, since you had been setting up the “puzzle” for a long time, so that the players could “solve it” in character. They didn’t need to use out-of-character knowledge to find a solution, and it wasn’t found by simple trial and error.

    • November 11, 2010 at 9:15 am — Reply

      No, that wasn’t a puzzle, the players knew the answer to that one the moment it was introduced. I didn’t expect there to be any figuring out on their part, mostly dealing with it in character.

    • Ricco
      November 11, 2010 at 9:49 am — Reply

      That wasn’t really a puzzle, remember how it pretty much started with Smith saying “I’m not replacing the fuse!” Then the characters started to look for another possibility until Rodrigo re-affirmed their initial solution when Smith retained part of the energy in the tunnel bellow the fuse box.

  11. Spaceboots
    November 11, 2010 at 11:45 pm — Reply

    My theory on why puzzles don’t work in role-playing games is that the two are just related and unrelated enough to be weird together.

    Let’s try and think of some analogies. Here’s one: CG faces. There’s a certain sweet spot, or hump, between totally unrealistic and totally realistic, where CG faces become really weird. Unrealistic faces, like on toy cowboys and anthropomorphic cars, work fine. But people react badly when they think you’re trying to fool them into thinking a face is, or could be, real.

    Here’s another analogy. Puzzles in RPGs are like taco sandwiches. You don’t butter a taco and put two slices of bread around your taco.

    And a third analogy. Many of us get really pissed off at writers who pull the “it was all a dream” trope in a comic, novel, video game, television series, or movie. It’s kind of like the inverse of breaking the fourth wall. Instead of having four walls, there are now eight walls, as well as the possibility of an infinite regression of inner narratives.

    Basically my point is that a D&D game is already a kind of puzzle. You can think of any RPG encounter as an elaborate versions of Chess puzzles, where the PCs themselves are the pieces. A good Chess puzzle makes creative use of the space of the board, and the conceptual space of what is allowed by the various theories of piece movement.

    In Chess puzzles, it is virtually inconceivable that you would have the pieces stand in the centre of the board and hand the players a substitution cipher, and state that the Chess puzzle will be won when they complete the cipher. In that situation you might as well just get rid of the Chess board and play a different kind of puzzle.

    I haven’t actually implemented this, but I have a theory about a sort of Denny’s placemat-and-crayons type of D&D adventure. In which combat and role-playing are just two of the half-dozen or so activities that make up the entire evening. Basically instead of personifying your characters, you are asked to look at them from six or seven different angles, sometimes from far above, sometimes close up, sometimes over longer periods of time, and sometimes over shorter periods. Your characters might not even resemble themselves when you change the lens you’re looking at them through.

    What this also means though is that a character sheet might be insufficient to really represent all the facets of a single character. On the other hand, we already know that character sheets are notoriously complex and contingency-based, so it should be possible to use some of those numbers in interesting ways that aren’t always necessarily moving the players around on a 1-inch grid.

    I don’t mean to denigrate the 1-inch grid though. I think the game can be perfectly rewarding if it is cast as a series of puzzles that all play out on a 1-inch grid. I still think there’s infinite possibility there.

  12. November 12, 2010 at 11:21 am — Reply

    I think it’s important to distinguish between “puzzles” and “brain-teasers”. I think the examples you gave (riddles, jigsaw puzzles) are puzzles, and I agree that they’re bad for games. But that doesn’t mean games can’t include challenges that require thinking and reason. They have to function in the context of the game, and they should have multiple possible solutions.

    For example, say the players are about to enter the Temple of the Earth Lord. The temple entrance is underground, and in front of the doors is a section of bare earth. Not masonry or stone, but dirt. Just before that are a few worn stone blocks about 2′ tall. If the characters attempt to walk to the doors, a hostile Earth Elemental rises from the dirt, calls them “disrespectful” in the language of Earth Elementals, and attacks them if they do not immediately back up. (after which, the elemental sinks back down into the dirt) The stone blocks are smooth, and provide a good place to sit. The bare earth is maybe 15′ x 15′. The elemental rises up, can attack, but sinks back down if no one is on the dirt.

    The “correct” solution is to sit down on the stone blocks, remove footwear, and walk barefoot over the sacred ground. However, it’s not the only option. Characters could fly over, or levitate, or maybe pull off a long running jump. The elemental doesn’t seem leave the dirt, so they could try to sprint past, force open the doors, and hope it won’t follow. Dice-rolling won’t give the answer, but it can give clues as to what’s going on. (“the temple of earth is considered sacred ground”, “the stone blocks don’t seem to have any religious meaning; they seem more functional”)

    I agree with your critiques, I just think it’s important to distinguish between context-less riddles that offer only one “correct” solution and in-game “brain-teaser” type encounters that encourage thinking without limiting choices.

  13. Beren1
    November 14, 2010 at 11:58 pm — Reply

    I agree with Rodrigos article here as long as puzzles is a little more closely defined. Anything that mechanically separates you as a player from you as a character is bad for an rpg.

    However I think if designed from the beginning for the game it is in. A puzzle that is solved through mechanics already in the game, be that skill encounter, movement in combat or clues given in the environment that if used make a fight easier. Basically if you are trying to mix games/genres/sauces/reactive chemicals care must be taken to blend them correctly or they will detract from the whole.

  14. Damascus
    December 1, 2010 at 4:59 am — Reply

    When I used to play 2.5 or 3e (I can’t remember), my DM didn’t use many riddle type puzzles in gameplay (unless there were characters who both the player and respective avatar were good at handling them). We didn’t play with a grid, but there were basic descriptions of the rooms we were in and the DM handled everything on the fly. His ability to run with and adjust his game according to what we did allowed us to really think up some really off-the-wall ways of defeating enemies or overcoming obstacles, small or large. I remember one time I was playing my Halfling Monk and spent three or four rounds trying to climb up the back and neck of a dragon eventually making up there and wrapping a Cursed Belt of Squeezing (that I’d found much earlier in our campaign) around it’s neck and with a Critical roll the dragon fell off a cliff and that encounter was over.

    Speaking of, Randus still has a special belt that was given to him by the Exilarchy of Cogs that he’s still never used the special features from it.

    • December 1, 2010 at 10:19 pm — Reply

      Arquebus took the belt back when the Exilarchy telemaported. He never gave it back.

      • Damascus
        December 1, 2010 at 10:52 pm — Reply

        Well crap then. I’ve been wondering what that thing was supposed to do for a long time now and it doesn’t even matter anymore. Oh well, now lets figure out why Ket’s Book Imp didn’t just follow the energy trails off the Obelisk since it saw them and even knew that there were more than one trails coming off the Obelisk.

        Ha ha. I don’t really nitpick the little things, I just originally hoped that if he still had it, that Randus would use his belt since he was frequently getting a big ol’ fist inna face.

  15. Ogreboy
    January 10, 2011 at 10:34 am — Reply

    Agreeing with Rodrigo, but having trouble giving up on Riddles in the Dark and The Doors of Durin as DND encounters. I guess they’re skill challenges and the riddles themselves become flavour text? What skill do you use for solving riddles anyway? Just an Int check with a (relatively) low DC?

    • January 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm — Reply

      History, Religion, Arcana, Nature, depending on what the players draw on to answer it.

  16. Wilson
    June 9, 2011 at 9:43 am — Reply

    Provide the answer to the riddle in another part of the adventure. A nearby library, perhaps. In a locked chest or an abandoned scrollcase clutched in a skeleton’s hand. A secret door/panel that someone notices would be useful. There are many ways to give the party a challenge that they can try and if they fail another opportunity will present itself, for the skilled DM. If the next similar challenge is met with groans of protest do not include anymore in the future. Allowing the players not to try is disappointing.

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