Some of the most iconic adventures in literature and mythology have the hero engaging in a battle of wits with a nefarious guardian of some lost treasure or artifact. The Sphinx’s riddle or unraveling the mystery of eternal life in The Epic of Gilgamesh are, arguably, the most famous. And since Dungeons & Dragons directly and unabashedly references many of these older stories, it is not surprising that some adventures – published or homebrewed – also include a puzzle that requires active participation from the players, rather than a die roll. However, puzzles are not everyone’s cup of tea and some puzzles may leave some players out in the cold. Thus it is critical to think of ways of engaging players to think creatively and come up with multiple ways to solve a puzzle in order to keep the game engaging and fresh.
Some of the worst puzzles for players are abstract ones, such as mathematical word problems, which can shut down some (if not many) players’ enjoyment of the game. Why? Because instead of relying upon the innate super-human nature of their character (who is stronger, faster, tougher, and more intelligent than most humans are), you’re asking them to rely upon their own perception and skill sets, which may strike some as inherently unfair. In extreme cases, it can shut the player down entirely, prompting them to ‘give up’ on the session and bringing the whole table down as a result. So how do we overcome this as DMs? Through player immersion and flexible outcome theory.
Player immersion comes in many forms; doing funny voices, a catch-phrase, or even the minis used by players on a battle mat. With puzzles, you may want to introduce a tactile component that acts as a prompt for the player to see the world through the eyes of the character. For example, if a party is facing a strange, magical combination lock which requires either a certain pattern or sequence of button pushes, consider placing a series of common playing cards before the players to represent the combination or pattern lay out (or, if you’re feeling fancy, consider Three Dragon Ante or Tarot cards instead). The inclusion of a 3-D element to the playing board is designed to appeal to different intelligences (i.e. different ways that people perceive the world and solve problems); for kinesthetic or tactile learners, this inclusion makes “sense” to them, while at the same time rarely serving as a distraction to those who prefer to use their imagination. But even this might not be enough, so to augment the varying abilities of the players to align more with the heroic attributes of the characters, include rewards for out-of-the-box thinking, role-playing, or methodical approaches. For example, the Wizard of the group, in true role-play fashion, may have his or her character examine the mechanism or puzzle logically, while the Rogue may look for weaknesses in the mechanism, and the Cleric may pray for divine insight. All of these display a melding of the player and the character which is the essence of D&D play and thus should be rewarded. How you reward such thinking us ultimately up to you, but it should result in some kind of advantage when solving the puzzle; extra tries, dodging damage from a trap, hints at the solution, or similar “legs up” are some examples.
Regardless, remember that there is “more than one way to skin a cat” so to speak. This is where “Flexible Outcome theory” comes into play; when presenting a puzzle to the players, with or without tactile aids, be ready to offer them several ways out of the puzzle, each of them equally valid in their own right. While many players might enjoy the challenge of a puzzle, some do not. Some people play D&D not for the cerebral aspect of the game, but for the number-crunching, body-counting goodness of being the best at what they do. If there are some (or even many) such players at your table, allow them to play their character their way as long as it isn’t disruptive (See the Managing Player Types post for more ideas on that score). That is not to say that you should allow the Barbarian or Fighter a chance to smash their way through the lock, or maybe the Warlock might manifest an aspect of her or his Infernal Pact to burn the mechanism out (though you could). Rather, if in frustration or in role-playing, the player throws mud at the mechanism, or smashes a table, or sits angrily in the corner, take it as an opportunity for the fickle finger of fate to point out a solution; keypads which are used often may repel the mud just a bit, the table might have had part of the code carved into it, or the stool might be the actual opening mechanism a la Scooby Doo. In other words, the outcome is not one answer, but many, and each character (and thus each player) has an ability to make that solution a reality.
Puzzles are not for every play style, and can get very old very quickly if they are a constant aspect of your adventure. But the occasional brain-teaser, especially those which engage all players, can be the palate-cleansing sorbet in the feast of carnage and mayhem that is a typical D&D session. Consider wisely your players, your motivation for the puzzle, and the variety of ways to solve the situation and you’ll be well on your way to Mastering the Game.
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