Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Puzzles - Players & Characters

So Beedo wrote a nice post about puzzles in his Mad God megadungeon.

I got to thinking about how puzzles fit into a game. Beedo's posts are generally like that. I figured I need to keep something in mind when I put in puzzles - just like when I put in traps, monsters, etc. It's a continuum between two extremes - purely player-centered and purely character-centered.

On one end of the spectrum, a puzzle is purely player centered. A player-centered puzzle is one that depends on the knowledge of the players. Chess match puzzles that depend on the players knowing chess moves are like this. Factual puzzles (like the golem number puzzle in S2 White Plume Mountain), logic puzzles, riddles, jokes missing punchlines - all of those things generally purely test the player, not the characters. It doesn't matter if your wizard is a genius if you don't know how to recognize the mathematical progression pattern in that door combo, or whatever.

On the far end of the spectrum is the character-centered puzzle. A character-centered puzzle is pretty much like any other skill check, combat "to hit" roll, damage roll, etc. - do you roll well enough to accomplish your goal of getting past it? You roll the dice, you compare your IQ to the Mind Flayers' puzzle box's required IQ score, whatever. No amount of player skill impacts the results any more than player skill impacts how that d6 lands when you roll damage - discounting cheating, of course.

Of course, you can mix these anywhere along the spectrum. You can place a minimum required character aspect, or require a character-based roll, in order to solve a problem that is otherwise player-knowledge required. The players might need to figure out what to do, but their characters must execute in-game tasks successfully to manage it. (Actually, that also describes combat in almost every game I've played.) Or you can have a puzzle that only needs to be identified as such before a character roll solves the whole thing.

Let's try a few examples.

Purely Player Knowledge: A statue-moving puzzle. Put the statues in alphabetical order by name, and a magic door opens. No character ability matters.

Mainly Player Knowledge: A statue that utters a complex math puzzle, which requires the players to do the math to succeed. However, the statue only speaks to those with a minimum level of Magery and/or Thaumatology skill (or minim levels in Magic-User, say). Others are just not worthy of the challenge, and the statue will ignore their words even if they speak the answer.

Minimal Player Knowledge: A chasm blocks your way and has a magical gust of wind that blows when you try to cross it. Player knowledge can identify the problem and the solution, but character skills such as Climbing skill or a Dispel Magic spell are needed to resolve it.

Pure Character Skill: A magic door will only open when a complex magical puzzle lock is opened. All it takes is an IQ-based lockpicking roll to open it.

There are plenty of wayposts on the continuum, from either direction. But I think it's worth remembering that pretty much all game systems abstract some things to player ability, and some to character ability. Puzzles are just another aspect of it. You need to consider when you put it down if it's primarily a character challenge or a player challenge.

Of course, remember that players treat puzzles the way Alexander treated the Gordian Knot - they might find an option you weren't expecting . . .


  1. I like that puzzles test the player skill; I'm looking forward to including them in the family game so they become a teaching opportunity for the kiddos.

    I see what you mean about "character skill" in opposition to player skill, but I'm wondering if we can treat character skill just as a different type of inventory problem.

    An inventory puzzle requires bringing the appropriate game element into contact with the puzzle to get past it... the puzzle solving bit is seeing the problem, making the right connection when they find an appropriate item, or creatively looking for a substitute. Things like finding the key, or using the junk in the dungeon to build a ladder or bridge, or finding a special quest item for the hag before she answers your question. By analogy, the same ideas for items can extend to intangible character skills. Examples:

    The portal of undeath needs to be "turned" like an undead monster before it opens up; once the party identifies the problem, the party cleric might need to be an appropriate level before they can get past the door, or find a higher level NPC to help, or use a spell or magic item for that one-time boost.

    Characters need a certain amount of strength to lift something in the dungeon like a trap door... this could require strength potions, a block and tackle, bribing the ogre, or maybe they're just lucky enough to have two guys with 18/00.

    Casting the right kind of spell is a way get past an obstacle... like using a Gust of Wind spell to blow all the poison gas out of the hallway.

    I'm thinking the key to making it a good design, whether the solution leverages intangible character skills or tangible physical items, is to structure the puzzle so it requires table-planning, discussion, and strategy for the players to arrive at a solution - emphasizing the social elements of the table top setting.

    1. I think you're probably right - the "inventory" is just a skill, and structuring puzzles in a way that leverages intangible "inventory" is a good way to look at it. The nice thing is, it might drive players to "bonus hunt" in a way that is really very dependent on player cleverness without making it so the smart guy who runs the low-IQ impulsive barbarian is solving the complex and time-consuming puzzle. It rewards the players for the work, but still makes the actual abilities of their paper man matter. That's how a lot of game subsystems work.

      I'd say it's worth keeping in mind that all encounters - puzzles, traps, obstacles, doors, monsters, etc. - should to some degree require the social aspects you mentioned. Some won't require much, some should require a lot, and some will always come down to purely player decisions. It's not just puzzles, really - opening a door, fighting some orcs, or figuring out how to get the statue's arms into the right position to open the magic portal are all just somewhere on that continuum between "player skill" and "character abilities."

  2. I'm very much in the "character skill" camp, as I suspect you know, but appreciate something you said - that combat still uses player skill, just not with swordplay, instead relying on player skill for tactical considerations. Something I'd not really considered before but that nuances the situation significantly.

    I will likely look at systems to include player overall "tactics" when it comes to puzzles, but demand character skill alongside.

    1. I'm glad. That analogy is an important one, because the usual refrain is that combat is "different" because you can't act it out at the table. But it's not any different than any other roll-based resolution that requires a player element to make the right choices. You could just as easily make combat a puzzle where the decisions of the players decides the results (a more complex rock-paper-scissors matrix, say), or make a puzzle that is purely dice based. It's just how you choose to mix the resolution methods.


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