spectre
 member, 875 posts
 Myriad paths fell
 away from that moment....
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 04:57
Puzzles in RPGs?
I'm into the idea of presenting mysteries and puzzles in games but I'm curious how other people like to present them and pull them off? Are they generally a macguffin for getting the players to run around and collect stones, solve a maze, etc, in your games, or do you like to present them as quick one shot mystery? What kind of puzzles/mysteries work best for you?

I'm most interested in what sorts of structure works best on pbp games as well, any and all experience with this welcome!

This message was last edited by the user at 04:58, Fri 28 Aug.

Sir Swindle
 member, 228 posts
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 11:49
Puzzles in RPGs?
I don't like puzzles in RPG's generally speaking. I feel like they invalidate my character. My mechanics don't matter because I have to interact with the puzzle mechanics. My RP doesn't matter because I still have to solve this puzzle correctly or we can't go forward so solving it like an orc or a wizard doesn't matter.
evileeyore
 member, 382 posts
 GURPS GM and Player
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 11:50
Puzzles in RPGs?
My only advice?  Don't skimp on clues and be prepared to follow the trail the PCs are blazing off into left field.  I've found that Players will either fail to notice clues (even when you obey the Rule of Threes) or they hyper-focus on one clue (usually a red herring) to the exclusion of everything else.
Gaffer
 member, 1644 posts
 Ocoee FL
 45 yrs of RPGs
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 12:51
Puzzles in RPGs?
I hate puzzles in games for the same reason as Sir Swindle. A puzzle is generally inorganic to the game and only has one solution and cannot be solved "in character." I suppose there are exceptions, but I've never come across any.

I love mysteries in games, but evileeyore is right about how tricky they are to pull off as game master. Most game masters get even more linear with mysteries than with other plot elements, reducing them to puzzles. Also, I read and write a lot of mysteries and I'm often frustrated because I detect inconsistencies and never know whether they are a plot artifact or just a lack of GM knowledge.

So, no to puzzles, yes to mysteries, but they're hard work.
engine
 member, 781 posts
 There's a brain alright
 but it's made out of meat
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 15:54
Puzzles in RPGs?
Create the puzzle with the players, so they are sure to be engaged with it, feel it makes sense, and can have their characters solve it.

Take a cue from video games and "teach" the players how to solve the kinds of puzzles they will face.

Ensure that there's a time limit, so that if the players aren't sure what to do, time can pass and the game can change in such a way that things can move on.
spectre
 member, 876 posts
 Myriad paths fell
 away from that moment....
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 16:35
Puzzles in RPGs?
I haven't tried too many puzzles in game that don't require an ability score roll to solve, but mysteries are always fun. For my own part I'm trying to come up with something interesting for my current players as they have listed an interest in puzzles and mysteries as something they enjoy in a game. So to that end I'm just trying to spice things up for those folks.
engine
 member, 782 posts
 There's a brain alright
 but it's made out of meat
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 17:47
Puzzles in RPGs?
In reply to spectre (msg # 6):

For the first one, definitely talk it over with them, if you haven't, to understand exactly what they like.

I find mysteries problematic because they run into a number of potential issues:

They don't make sense: the actions of victims and perpetrators don't conform to what the players see as logical, so the players can't possibly arrive at the correct solution.

The GM can't clarify: if the PCs have misunderstood a clue or want to understand the situation better, the GM often had to clam up or be very cagey, to avoid giving things away, which can quickly erode trust and harden the "GM-vs-players" mentality that rarely makes games better.

The GM can't say yes: if the mystery is carefully crafted to involve a certain pace and particular steps the PCs must take, such as interacting with NPCs, anything that disrupts that, like a spell or item or just a clever player idea, is something the GM has an incentive to block, for no better reason than the needs of the story. Even mysteries that take everything into account will often have to involve a contrived blockage of certain abilities. I imagine we've all seen modern-day mysteries in which a single cellphone call could have short circuited the whole thing, requiring the writer to stick in a contrived reason that won't work.

As long as the players are bought in, they don't mind spoilers and the pacing isn't important, mysteries can work fine. Otherwise, they're likely to be diminished.
praguepride
 member, 1675 posts
 "Hugs for the Hugs God!"
 - Warhammer Fluffy-K
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 18:12
Puzzles in RPGs?
It depends on the puzzle. Riddles are a classic from the Sphinx to Gollum but you have to really know your players to make it work. Placing a puzzle in your "critical path" of adventure can grind the story to a halt. A LOT of modern gaming systems that want to incorporate investigation/exploration into their mechanics have a "succeed at cost" mechanic because if you have ONE clue that is needed to move things forward and the PCs botch the rolls or don't pick up on your hints than the game dead ends.

Puzzles are fine as long as you can do a few things:

1) Allow the players to resolve a puzzle via rolls so if a character is smart but the player isn't puzzle inclined you don't get that disconnect where a character is limited by their player.

2) Allow the players to fail. There has to be a thread that allows for the players to not get the puzzle. If a puzze is mandatory to be solved to move forward than you have to also plan for bad rolls or players not solving it. This is where a "succeed at cost" option comes into play. Maybe you narrate that they spend a while and eventually solve it but this gives the enemy time to prepare defenses or they didn't unlock all the rewards etc.

3) When it comes to a mystery it is important that you plant sufficient clues. I like to use the "rule of three" which is that if you have a clue like "the killer used a rope to strangle the victim" then there should be three paths (at least) to find that information. Maybe they can find the murder weapon OR investigate the body OR talk to an NPC who notices the rope is missing from its shelf. Three organic clues that all point the same direction that way even if the players fail a roll they don't miss a vital clue and with several paths of discovery you greatly increase the chances that the players will "think like you" and think about what to do to solve the mystery.

Rule of 3 has worked out very well for me in terms of mysteries.
evileeyore
 member, 383 posts
 GURPS GM and Player
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 18:25
Puzzles in RPGs?
Okay, now Puzzles.

My preffered method is to not use 'real' puzzles.  Like no "and all three pressure plates need to be stood on in scheduled and timed sequence while the handle is pulled and someone chants 'Ominous Rex Internum' three times into the speaking tube in room 43a"... because even if you drop all the clues in the world, the frustration level of the PCs not solving it can be crushing on both sides of the screen.

Unless that's the game you and yours enjoy.  That's the kicker, if your Players enjoy trying to brute-force code break puzzles, and you enjoy it, then go for it.  Run wild and free.  I certainly enjoy it as a Player (I love codebreaking too), but my Players tend to not go for it as much.

Otherwise, I suggest using the mechanic presented in D&D 4e (which was probably stolen from elsewhere but that's the first tiem I saw it), to wit, make it a skill challenge of sorts.  Like convert the mechanic style over to your game of choice clearly, but it's basically like this:

SYSTEMLESS 'FANTASY' EXAMPLE:

The PCs encounter an obelisk in the center of the room with several other doors leading out, all doors are closed and cannot be opened by normal means.  If the doors are examined with powers, each door resonates with a different 'Power'.  If the obelisk is examined with powers, the PCs will discover it emanates "Power Type" energy that different power users can manipulate (magic, divine, psionic, nature, cheese, elder, etc).  If examined mundanely, 'skilled' examiners can tell the obelisk can be rotated to face each door and 'locked' into place.  With the right skill rolls you give it away, that they need to face the door, use that type of energy, and the door will open.  If rotated away, the portal shuts again.


Now the above example doesn't mean that is the only way through the doors.  Maybe an Earth power user could tunnel through the door, or around it (or just use pickaxes).  Or if the doors are actually "Portals" that open to different areas, someone with Space/Gate powers might be able to open them using Gate/Space powers.

And the above is just a crude example of how to make a Puzzle that is solvable by the Characters (by relying on Character abilities, skills, attributes, etc) when it might not be easily solvable by the Players.

And you don't have to wait for the PCs to engage, you can start feeding the Players information based on what the Characters can see, hear, etc, passively.  Like a highly skilled trapspringer might immediately notice the obelisk isn't "solidly in the floor, it might be moveable somehow".  This method can help to spur engagement in Players that seem reluctant or disengaged with the game/puzzle.


But if you want to go even more 'abstract', you can just call for skill rolls and then tell the Players how their Characters solve the riddle.  For some groups this works well, some groups less so.
evileeyore
 member, 384 posts
 GURPS GM and Player
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 19:05
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
praguepride:
2) Allow the players to fail.

This so much.  You can't set up a Plot Lock involving anything that could be failed, there has to be way forward, even if it's the long hard way, if the Character's fail to solve a puzzle or mystery.


Which is also why I recommend being prepared to go where the Players think the mystery is going.  Sometimes it's more fun, or interesting.  Be loose and let the seat-of-your-pants guide you.
engine
 member, 783 posts
 There's a brain alright
 but it's made out of meat
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 19:09
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
evileeyore:
Otherwise, I suggest using the mechanic presented in D&D 4e (which was probably stolen from elsewhere but that's the first tiem I saw it)

That assumption seems unfounded and unnecessary.

And on the subject of allowing players to fail, I recommend working that into all aspects of your game, such as combat. If failure can only lead to an outcome the GM is going to avoid by fiat anyway, then don't bother playing the thing out. Assume they succeed and move on, or skip the situation entirely.
Sir Swindle
 member, 230 posts
Fri 28 Aug 2020
at 20:17
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
engine:
That assumption seems unfounded and unnecessary.

As is your objection. But it is essentially the fail forward principal that Gumshoe was considered revolutionary for.

Honestly it's worth a read if you are interested in mysteries since it is a mystery game entirely based on failing forward. It has almost no other mechanics, very rules lite (especially for the time).
evileeyore
 member, 385 posts
 GURPS GM and Player
Sat 29 Aug 2020
at 00:01
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
engine:
That assumption seems unfounded and unnecessary.

Since I've been running 'puzzle' encounters like that in GURPS since the mid 90's, and I got the idea from somewhere else at that time...  4e was the first time I saw it codified as "succeed x number of times before y failures", but otherwise, yeah, the mechanic and idea predate 4e.

This message was last edited by the user at 00:03, Sat 29 Aug.

DaCuseFrog
 member, 107 posts
 SW Florida
Sat 29 Aug 2020
at 04:12
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
I ran a campaign back in college (MANY years ago) that used Gollum's riddles as a solution to a puzzle.  Unfortunately, each puzzle was only offered to one character, and the player had never read the Hobbit.  The only one in the whole group who hadn't, of course.  He was frustrated, the rest of the group were shaking their heads, and finally I had him roll an Intelligence check to figure them out.  So even with people you know well (he was and is one of my best friends), don't assume that you necessarily know everything.
engine
 member, 784 posts
 There's a brain alright
 but it's made out of meat
Sat 29 Aug 2020
at 05:02
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
evileeyore:
engine:
That assumption seems unfounded and unnecessary.
Since I've been running 'puzzle' encounters like that in GURPS since the mid 90's, and I got the idea from somewhere else at that time...  4e was the first time I saw it codified as "succeed x number of times before y failures", but otherwise, yeah, the mechanic and idea predate 4e.

I wouldn't characterize "predating" as "stealing," is all, particularly given the apparently new way in which it was codified.

Anyway, I'm glad to see the approach encouraged. It suffers from the way skills in games are typically handled, but built-in limit on the number of times the GM can require checks and the players can make attempts is important.
spectre
 member, 877 posts
 Myriad paths fell
 away from that moment....
Sat 29 Aug 2020
at 07:08
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
 Thank you all for the insightful responses and I welcome other views on the creation of puzzles/mysteries too.

 I'm familiar with the "fail forward" concept but not the mechanic mentioned that Gumshoe(?) coined for 4th edition.

 I'll look into the Gumshoe game mechanic since I haven't read much of the 4th edition rules but it would be fun to construct a puzzle that sets the team's thinkers into action that is playable and fun. I'm extremely lucky to have several great role-players in my group, so either way it should be interesting to try and a good challenge for me too.

 Any other ideas that could add to what's already been said would still be fun to check out too. I'm currently reading a book on game theory like the 'prisoners dilemma' so that could be fun to play with.
engine
 member, 785 posts
 There's a brain alright
 but it's made out of meat
Sat 29 Aug 2020
at 09:02
Re: Puzzles in RPGs?
spectre:
I'm familiar with the "fail forward" concept but not the mechanic mentioned that Gumshoe(?) coined for 4th edition.

Gumshoe may have coined "fail forward" and 4th Edition certainly urged DMs not to make failure a dead end, but the systems are different.

In 4th Edition, skill-based challenges require a set number of successes depending on the complexity of the task, before 3 failures. There are endless adjustments and variations to this, and some people run them with a lot of detail and interaction while others don't.

It's not a great system for puzzles, I find. I play 4th Edition, and the approach I use ofr puzzles is to keep them simple. I make the challenge less about getting the right answer and more about getting past challenges and making trade-offs or sacrifices in order to apply that right answer.