Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Some Short Thoughts on the Complexity of Puzzles

I sometimes include puzzles in my games. The evil tree from the last game session is a puzzle monster, for sure. It cannot be defeated by brute force. I made that terribly obvious, to avoid the thousands of points of wasted damage seen with another puzzle monster, the hydra. No, you're not wearing it down. No, you're not bringing it ever closer to -10xHP. You're doing nothing at all.

So, obviously a puzzle.

What's the solution?

How complex is the puzzle?

From the GM's side of the screen, a puzzle can look very simple. But from the player's side, it can see terribly complex. If it seems complex from the GM's side of the screen, odds are it's going to seem (and be) unsolvable by the PCs. They're dealing with a limited set of information at best, different understandings of the words your using, a different perception of the situation, and your puzzle.

In C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness, The simple chessboard puzzle in the dungeon was also a big complexity for them, even though - once they got started - the solution wasn't complicated. But it was easy to see it as more than it presented. It was all too easy to see more issues where fewer actually existed. The rotating statues puzzle was simple at heart, but still required a lot of clues to solve it - and a lot of freedom of movement about the dungeon.

Is it even a puzzle?

Still, it's easy for the players to take bits of one puzzle or riddle and assume it's connected to another. You also get non-puzzles that are seen as puzzles - perhaps our Gamma Terra GM andi will tell the tale of the eight statues and the eight vials of holy water in the comments. One from our games was the beaded curtain in C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness, where the PCs spent an extremely long time dealing with something that was just a simple obstacle - to be either forced or removed via Dispel Magic.

Knowing is Half the Puzzle

With those two things in mind, I know I need to keep solutions simple and relatively obvious - or, at least, hinted at three or more times. The more, the better. I'm likely to keep it a little vague, maybe too vague, but throw a lot of them out. Even armed with all of them, the players won't always figure it out. That's okay, but without them I'm assuring myself that they can't. That's not fun for anyone.


  1. Sometimes, just sometimes, i don't "create' solutions to the puzzle. Sometimes it's a 'quantum' puzzle, as in the solution is whatever the Players come up with that most impresses me. And sometimes it's not a puzzle, but a wall to forever slam their faces on until the decide to quit (or rather the solution to the puzzle is "Just walk away" as said by Lord Humungus).

    1. To date, I've only put in "puzzles" that I know a solution to. But often the players mistake something for a puzzle, which is funny at first and frustrating some time into it.

  2. You say that seemingly easy puzzles are hard for players who have less information than the GM, whereas seemingly hard puzzles are virtually impossible for players. From my experience I always viewed puzzles as an extension of Murphy's Law. The easier and more obvious a puzzle, the longer the players will be stuck at it guessing everything EXCEPT the correct solution. Corollary: If the GM thinks a puzzle is possibly too hard and is considering giving clues or replacing it with something easier, the players will waltz right through without giving it a pause or a thought; their first guess will always be correct even if they don't know why.

    PS-The tree/shadow puzzle is a good one. I'm having fun both reading about it and wondering what it might ultimately be overcome by.

    1. Heh. I like that analysis. And thanks, I'm glad you're enjoying the "tree/shadow puzzle."

  3. About the puzzle Peter alluded to: In my DF game the PCs found a room with either statues of a Moon Goddess, one each for each phase of the moon. Later they would find an orrery, and in order to make the planets on the orrery line up, the needed to know which goddesses went in which order.. The clues to put them in order were on the statues themselves (which I drew for the players). So eight statues, hints on paper, should have been easy enough (and I'm 100% sure they would have solved it, they're good at puzzles). Problem was, 10 minutes earlier they'd found a well-hidden cache of potions (which they were lucky to spot) in which were eight vials of holy water. Eight goddess statues, eight vials -- the players become 100% convinced that solving the puzzle had *everything* to with the holy water. Every solution they proposed had to do with the water. They fixated on the water to the exclusion of all other schemes. Eventually I ad-libbed something and they "solved" it, but a random stash of potions wasted an hour or more of session time and forced me to let them solve it "wrong"...

  4. And speaking of puzzles Peter's readers might be interested in, there was a fun on in session 9 of our Gamma Terra game. Peter put it in his summary, challenging his readers to solve it.


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