Puzzles and Points of Failure

How not to stall your game with stuff other than hitting monsters

I was asked recently on my Discord server how I handle puzzles in my games.  Do I use them, how do I make sure they aren’t too hard, and what do I do if they party gets stumped?  A fellow Game Master (GM) dropped the following snark:

“You want to put a puzzle for your players to solve?  Easy, just look up ‘puzzles for toddlers’ on the Internet, and then spend the evening tearing your hair out as they fail to solve it.” — Annon GM

This perception, while funny, is at the heart of why so many GMs do not use puzzles or tricks in their table-top role-playing game (TTRPG) sessions.  The pop-culture of TTRPGs is laden with green-texts and memes about players who couldn’t safely navigate a gazeebo, let alone sort out a riddle from a Sphynx. 

And yet, the epiphanous moment of “Speak Friend, and Enter” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is just too good to ignore in our games.  It’s a chance for both the GM and the Players to feel clever about some cool piece of world-building that actually does something visibly in the game.

Pointing Out The Problem

So, the issue boils down to a simple thing that we likely all know better than to do, from the real world:  never build a Single Point of Failure (SPF) into your stories.  Stories are systems and networks, like areoplanes and computers.  SPFs are literally the thing that will break or fail at the worst possible moment and crash you.

A puzzle with no alternative way to solve it is an SPF.   Which means that it will negatively impact your story and your game session if anything less than ideal circumstances happens.

My Way Around It

There are two straightforward ways to avoid this issue.  First, don’t put story-progress related content behind a puzzle that only has one solution.  If the content behind the puzzle is optional, then so is the puzzle. The players are therefore free to ignore it and move on if your idea of “simple” and theirs doesn’t line up.  They can always come back to it later if one of the characters or players has a sudden light-bulb moment while doing something else.

If the puzzle is gate-keeping story-progess related content, then my approach is to have three possible solutions.  The solutions I lean towards are skill-check based, role-play based and tool-based.  

An Example

The players are exploring a Steampunk Dungeon filled with clockwork zombies, gearoaches, and steam spitters.  They arrive in room with two doors, one of which is locked.  Beside the locked door is a contraption with six handles on it, and a set of three light bulbs.

The door will only open if the levers are set in the right order;  getting each pair of handles set right turns on a light bulb.  Three light-bulbs on unlocks the door.  If the players “Investigate (DC12)” the machine or are clever with “Perception (DC14)”, they will find a keyhole at the back of the machine.

So the primary option for solving the puzzle here is for the player to mess with it until they get it right, using whatever meta / mini-game the GM thinks is fun.  That is the RP-based option.

The skill-check based option is finding the keyhole and then getting someone with “Proficiency: Lockpicks (DC12)” or an “Athletics (DC14)” skill to make a semi-challenging skill-check role to open the maintenance hatch on the back of the machine and open the door that way.

The last option is if the players get stumped / thwarted here, they can explore the other door leading out of here.  After a couple of “just fight it” encounters, they will find a cog-wheel key in brass and silver, hanging on a leather cord.  The key can be used in the keyhole to open the locked door.

These are three distinct options, each focused on different types of player, giving everyone in the party a chance to “ah-HA!” the group to victory.  The odds of the party remaining thwarted with three options is very low, indeed.

One thing about the skill-check based solution that I will point out is that it involves a variety of skills.  There are two different tests, and each test has an option for two different skills, each linked to a different stat.  Once the Wizard spots the keyhole for the fixit hatch, potentially the Barbarian could just pry it open.  This gives a spectrum of ways for the players to use their characters to solve the problems.

The other thing you’ll notice is that the Difficulty Classes (DC) are biased towards a particular outcome.  In otherwords, it’s easier for the Rogue to look good here than the Barbarian.  Part of GMing, I believe, is to make sure every character, and therefore every player, gets a chance to be cool.  

Skill-checks, particularly tied to puzzles, are a way to shine the light on particular characters to increase their involvement. It does this by giving them the best chance to succede at something unique to the current story. 

What About Traps?

A trap is just a puzzle with an “actively negative” outcome, instead of a “passively negative” outcome.  I design traps with the same concepts as puzzles;  three options to solve or escape the fate looming before them.

One thing I try not to do is “just damage” traps.  I tend to aim for traps that inflict time-resolvable Status Effects;  Blindness, Exhaustion, Poisoned, Grappled, put to Sleep, etc.  Damage is easily resolved, and is “just monster stuff”.  Status Effects increase the narrative tension in the game, by forcing the party to manage risks.  

“Low health” generally provokes a mostly automated response from the players.  A level of Exhaustion, on the other hand, tends to have the players debating if they should risk pressing on, or fall back and rest up.

That’s It, That’s All

Thanks for reading.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about puzzles in TTRPGs.  Let me know what you think or have experienced in the comments section below.  Happy gaming!

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