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When are Puzzles Fun?

They're a staple of the dungeoncrawl, yet most players agree they're annoying, and it's a rare GM who likes creating them. Over on Matt's Blog, Chris commented that "9 out of 10 time", puzzles aren't fun". I tend to agree.

So when are they fun?
Would RPGs be better without them?
How do you use them in your campaigns?

RT, I *know* I've had fun solving puzzles in your games, so I know you've got something to contribute here.

A thought: they're fun when you don't have to do them.

In John's game Savage TV, he made the statement that every challenge can be boiled down to a simple dice roll if the PCs don't want to spend time on it. So PCs can simply make an INT roll or something and base the results on the rolle, e.g. "you solve the puzzle, but set off one of the traps and all take 2 points of damage".

A similar method (my preferred one), is to offer a risky, action oriented alternative. The PCs don't have to extend the bridge, they can risk swining across the chasm on their grappling hook instead.

I agree, Tony.

I'll also add:

Puzzles are fun when:
1) You like to solve puzzles, as a player, as metagame activity, and
2) they can actually be solved.

1 is a matter of taste. I have been known to enjoy a good puzzle, so sometimes I'm up for it, depending on the nature of the game.

2 is the tricky part. Making a good puzzle, that has a real, possible solution -- and then communicating it clearly enough to the players -- very, very tricky. I think most GMs bungle it, and don't realize it, since they already know the solution.

It's number 2 that makes me want to avoid puzzles in roleplaying games. They quickly turn into very boring guessing games with the GM.

I'm talking about metagame activities, here. In-game puzzles that the *characters* solve? Totally fine. There are many ways to handle that in a fun way using your system of the moment.

Great Question Tony!

I think your first comment is definitely a part of it - if the puzzle is a roadblock that must be overcome before you can do anything, or can't be bypassed/avoided or has a time sensitive component then it usually isn't fun for the players. I am a teacher, so I design tests and assessment for a living - I don't need it in my games. This also has a lot to do with pacing, which is probably the most crucial part of Dungeon Crawls and problem solving, but a bit off topic here.

At first, I thought enjoying puzzles had a lot to do with group dynamics and the particular players, and I still think it does to some degree, but when I talked this over with my wife, we both agreed that even the players I have played with that hate riddles and puzzles had a lot of fun even in puzzle-filled situations. It has more to do with the tone that is set up in the game and how puzzles (and all challenges for that matter) are designed with the players in mind.

In response to John's second point. I couldn't agree more. Puzzle-building is an art and it is not something that everyone is good at. I am constantly amazed at the number of DMs that think they can write riddles, even though they can't write a decent piece of prose or a rhyming couplet, and the DMs that think they can design traps even though they have no conceptualization of physics or mechanics. Like John said, it becomes a guessing game, which is really annoying.

Another aspect is in the placement and scaffolding around a puzzle. I try to put puzzles in that make sense in the context of the adventure. For instance, on the blog this post referenced, there was a bomb aboard a ship that had to be disarmed. Now, if this was the pivotal point of the adventure, and there had been leadup about the way to disarm it or that it would have to be disarmed and this was the climax of an adventure, then this puzzle could have been a real tension-filled moment. One thing I would have done, and always do is have the entire group able to solve the puzzle. If they are all there making suggestions on how to disarm it, possible yelling "no, not the blue one" or something, it could have been a lot of fun.

Another trick I use is to foster creativity by not holding to the ONE answer. In fact, I often design puzzles (not riddles, but traps, etc) with no set solution. I know that the players will come up with a good way around it - and it encourages them to come up with ideas. In fact, my best puzzle room (from the Quizzical Maze - remember Tony?) was one where the 99th solution the players come up with works. All the rest simply cause different complications. It was quite a lot of fun to play.

Even if a puzzle is a roadblock that must be overcome, I try to still give the players something else to do. I hate the games where the GM doesn't allow you to do anything until the riddle is solved. in fact my weekly game left a riddle for about 4 sessions, doing other stuff, before someone finally solved it.

I must admit that I don't like the statement "puzzles aren't fun" anymore than similar statements like "conversations are boring" or "combat is tedious". The whole point of playing is to have fun, and so as a GM and a player I work to make that the focus of the game. I think as a GM if you have that focus, it changes a bit of how you implement and adjudicate your puzzles. I think the players have learned that too. They don't have to worry about getting stuck on a puzzle and not being able to solve it - if they aren't having fun, then they know that someone (the GM or one of the players) willl change things up and keep the game moving.

A further thought... what makes something a puzzle? Is it the ablstract nature - the fact that it is a riddle or number/letter problem? I think that perhaps we may have differing definitions of what makes a puzzle a puzzle. For instance, I have been known to have dungeons that have clues built into the map that help players solve some mystery. Is that a puzzle? How about NPC interactions, can they be puzzles? Even figuring out how to equip could be considered a puzzle in certain instances perhaps. There may be an accepted definition that I am unaware of, so I'll defer further comment until I have been informed I think.

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I used a variant of the character-based puzzle in a Swedish freeform scenario I GM:ed recently. The characters found a rune, which I'd prepared on paper for the players. When presenting it I told them I had another note with the translation, and that the player that felt his character would be the first to translate it could see the hidden note. They roleplayed trying to guess for a while before one of them asked for the note to present the answer to the others.

I could see how this could be used for player-puzzles as well. The puzzle could be presented to the players with a solution note for them to check if they get bored. That way the GM won't have to tell all the players the answer, but one of them gets to shine. If the players immediately use the solution note, the GM would know something about what they're interested in for next time (of course he should ask them as well, but sometimes actions are clearer than words).

It's about setting expectations, as Roger said. But this really, really should be done EXPLICITLY, before play and as often as necessary after you start.

For example, I've never played in a game where "The 99th solution is right" would be acceptable fun. It would drive me batty and I wouldn't appreciate the humor in it after I found out.

However, if I went into a game with the spoken expectation that we, as players (not our characters) would be solving puzzles and playing a kind of puzzle add-on game to the RPG, then yeah... the 99th solution thing could work.

All too often, expectations like this are left unsaid. The GM and some of the players expect for "dungeon roleplaying" to involve this puzzle add-on game, and other players don't. Then when things go sour, people complain about the "right" and "wrong" way to run a dungeon crawl or some such nonsense. When really, we're just talking about player preference and being upfront and clear about the parameters of the game we are playing.

This touches on my current favorite rant (when all you have is a hammer...). Which is, no one knows what roleplaying is. Because it is many different kinds of activities under one big umbrella. There is no one way, no one technique, no one approach that is the way it "should" be done.

Instead, let's start treating our RPG series like games of Monopoly or Diplomacy. Be clear upfront about what the game is, how we will play it, and why. No one would set out a brand new board game, say, "Okay let's boardgame!" and expect everything to go smoothly.

Let's stop treating RPG play like a singular, homogenous thing that we all already "know how to do." If we can manage that, these details like puzzles, or immersion, or GM style, can be addressed in a more positive way.

In Tony's current DungeonPunk game, the default spell list (pulled out of the 1978 "red book" basic D&D rules) included the spell "Read Language," which arguably was irrelevant and useless in the game setting. I just want to point out that it was my idea to replace that with "Comprehend Logic Puzzle," as a way of giving the players an out, or at least a bonus, when faced with such a potentially exasperating situation. Tony did indeed add that spell in for the second dungeon. (And then we foolishly convinced JudaicDiablo not to prep that spell, right before we ran into the first logic puzzle. Oops. But we did get to use it later.)


I agree that players need to know what to expect explicitly, but it doesn't have to be the GM setting all this down for them. I enjoyed playing the "plot game" with my group, where we all got to discuss and bid on what type of conflicts we would have, what the setting would be, what systems we would be emphasizing etc. It takes all that guesswork out of the game for both players and GM. It also gets rid of that - hey this isn't role-playing! problem that happens sometimes.

Phil, in my current game there are also magical ways around any logic puzzle similar to Tony's Dungeonpunk game - it definitely helps! I do award a small experience point bonus or in game reward if the puzzle or riddle is solved the "old fashioned" way.


you'd be pleasantly surprised how fun the 99th solution trap is, both as a player and GM. Remember that every possible solution, or at least most of them, introduce a complication. It was quite interesting as a GM to keep coming up with new complications and seeing what the next solution would be. It could almost be a game or at least an improv exercise all in itself.

I agree, Roger. I didn't say that the GM should decide everything, and I fully support the notion that the group figures that stuff out together.

It's my guiding design principle these days.

I've had the most fun with puzzles when they weren't that hard, funny as that might sound.

Most of the time, there's kind of a "too many cooks" thing going on -- some players underthink the puzzle, others overthink them. Make the puzzle fairly easy, and you avoid that problem) just not so easy that it becomes a timewaster).


Since I sparked this whole conversation, I'll drop in my 2 cents worth of it:

Puzzles as metagame

As Roger stated, even people who don't like puzzles might have fun with them- though in my experience it's when the puzzle becomes a group effort to solve. When only one person tries to solve it, either they're the only one occupied with it while everyone else is bored or doesn't care, or else that one person gets discouraged because no one else is helping. A major thing is to get the whole group to work on the puzzle, then it becomes fun.

Puzzle design

Riddles I feel are the worst, because they often are very abstract and culturally specific. Consider any kind of riddle where the answer is "A barrow" when you're dealing with a group of people who might not even know what the hell a barrow is- either by age or cultural context.

For a different example, a weird Chinese one was "Why can't I catch all the stars in the sky?" "Because they keep twinkling to get away!" I'm sure in the native language, with context, it makes sense, but to me, I don't get it at all.

Second, physical puzzles without explicit diagrams or toys to demonstrate the puzzle. I remember being very frustrated in a D&D game when a trap got set off because no one in the party could fully parse exactly what the DM was describing- you could blame it on our mental visualization abilities- though none of us were mechanically inclined enough to follow what he was narrating.

The best puzzles are ones where the goals are explicitly laid out, though the exact means are not. Such as the moving block puzzles you can get at toy stores, or what I call "Sequential puzzles" where figuring out what to do in what order make up the puzzle. You can look at a lot of videogames for a good example of such things.

I'd even argue any puzzle with a physical prop the group can fiddle with is probably a good thing to go with. The thinkers can apply their minds, while the others can fiddle with it and sometimes make breakthroughs by luck.

Is it worth it?

Finally, if you're going to include puzzles, understand that every minute applied towards puzzle solving is a minute not applied to other aspects of game play, which may be good or bad for your group. But be sure to reward folks handsomely- because otherwise people won't necessarily be inclined to go through the effort a second time if it's a lot of hassle for a little reward.


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