Netflyer Oxford University Role Playing Games Society
Netflyer 31


Back to the Main Page Back to Netflyer Back to Contents

Puzzles were a staple of the kind of game at which it is now fashionable to sneer. But we authors are fully in tune with the 1990s ironic retro movement. We listen to Abba and the Jackson 5. We even watch Teletubbies. (We draw the line at the Spice Girls, though.) And, as such, we felt it was our duty to rehabilitate the puzzle. It doesn't have much use in these games that kids are playing today, but we're sure its time will come.
Very postmodern.

Riddles

"Tell me then, O Oracle, what gift I must bear to Epimenedes the Tall -- for he slays all who bring him offerings which displease him. He has been presented with gold, with slaves, with potions and with fine paintings. What should I have in my hands when I confront him?"
"Why, 'tis simple. Give him what it is that the poor have, what it is that the rich want, what it is that the Lord himself cannot provide, and which will bring your death if you eat it."
"But that is nothing at all! Speak more plainly."
"I have spoken plainly enough already, I see."

Riddles have a long and honourable literary tradition, and with good reason. A riddle can, in fact, be almost any other kind of puzzle but it should be presented with style; a good riddle is also a poem of sorts.
Because a riddle can contain coded information as well as a solution -- in fact, the solution may be sufficiently obscure to be hopelessly out of reach -- varying levels of partial success can be achieved. A riddle need not be solved at all, or solvable: many riddles are designed to have a clear meaning only after the events they describe.
Beware, though, the riddle that must be solved. Riddles generally involve a degree of lateral thinking, and it is easy for the players to get stuck and never get unstuck in such cases. Plan for what to do if this happens?

Anti-Puzzles

Moustachioed Villain: You see, the red goblin always speaks the truth, and the blue goblin always lies - or perhaps it is the other way round. Why not ask them a question and see?
Trusting Hero: Blue Goblin, if I was to ask the Red Goblin which phial contained the potion of life, what would he say?
Blue Goblin: He would say the white phial contained the potion of life.
Hero: Then I shall drink from the black phial.
[Drinks. Dies.]
Blue Goblin: A bad guess, my poor friend. You see, I always lie.

Puzzles are an honourable tradition in gaming, but a role-playing game is meant to reflect reality in some respects.
There is no reason why any old moustachioed villain with shabby clothes should actually honour his promise to release the prisoner if the riddle is solved. (Recall Gollum's reaction to losing the game of riddles.) One door leads to the treasure, and another to a horrible, slow and painful death? Why should you believe that?
The diligent reader will note that the hero's approach would be correct if the villain himself was telling the truth. The Blue Goblin's closing comment makes it clear that the villain was lying, but too late. Using anti-puzzles is realistic and often fun; the caveat is that they undermine the use of genuine puzzles in the game. Many referees will not find this objectionable at all...

Secret maps and codes

"Yadsnedewckolcxoishisfenfieviefhtneimteemmt5"
"Yadsn edewc kolcx oishi sfenf ievie fhtne imte emmt5"
"Yadse ndewk colco xishs ifeni fevif ehtni emte emmt5"
"Yadsendewkcolcoxishsifenifevifehtniemteemmt5"
"5tmmeetmeinthefivefinefishatsixoclockwednesday"
"Meet me in the Five Fine Fish at six o'clock Wednesday"

"After seven years, we find the second map, without which the first treasure map is useless... [Unravels map] But -- this is the same map, accursed beggar!"
But not quite the same map -- and the treasure is buried at the point where the two maps differ. Maps are a common staple, seem realistic and -- if you care to take the trouble -- make great handouts.
The trouble with any kind of coded sequence is the terrible difficulty of decoding it. The original version of the above puzzle used two sets of directions to the treasure; sometimes the directions were literally identical, and sometimes merely synonymous. Using only the synonyms provided the correct set of directions. It is a salutary lesson that the players never cracked the code. This is not necessarily a problem if it leads to further quests: firstly, for the other set of directions, but secondly, for someone who can help crack the code.
A good code is unbreakable without heavy-duty technical skills (and equipment, usually). Therefore, there needs to be some excuse for the code to be breakable: a typical excuse would be that the person inventing the code had no opportunity to supply a key to the recipient, and it was intended to be cracked using only native intelligence. Alternatively, launch an adventure based on the need to recover some fragment of translated material or of the key. (The code given above is fiendish, but rather less so with the "5", and much less so with a translated fragment.)
Codes can become very tedious unless your players are very fond of that kind of thing, and even then it takes time to design creative and original codes.

Logic and Maths

The staircase led down and into a wide, circular room. Six archways were set into the wall and in the centre stood an old, mossy well. Prince Tarquin strode briskly towards the nearest of the archways but was pulled back by Jazeen. "Master, that archway is a magical portal, you might wish to delay stepping through until we are more certain where it leads." Tarquin waited impatiently whilst Jazeen searched the chamber, eventually locating an inscription on the well, which he read aloud : "When the Lord first made heaven there was only a single angel. Then on the next day there were seven and on each day thereafter their numbers increased sevenfold. Some time later all the angels of heaven came to this place and they did not know that only one of the archways led safely from the maze. So it was that the first angel turned leftwards and stepped through the first archway, then the second angel stepped through the next archway and so they proceeded, round and round. When the final angel stepped through an archway he reached freedom and the chamber was silent again."
Jazeen turned to his master, "My apologies, prince, you were quite right."

Logical and mathematical puzzles are perhaps the easiest sort to devise, at least for a GM with any talent at either. Also certain kinds of players find them very entertaining. Unfortunately that's where the advantages end. Solving these puzzles is often more of an out-of-character thing, an interlude from the game in which the players exercise their minds a little. These kinds of puzzles you either solve or you don't (much like riddles) and some players will be much better at them than others, so take care that you aren't boring the less mathematical of your players to death! Best used sparingly.

Detective

Fossington-Pryce listened to the Constable explain the case. "His son, young Matthew stands to inherit the company and he never did like his father. The deceased's friend Harvey Waterstone owns the murder weapon - a unique and beautiful gun, but quite deadly. No motive though. Then there's Fiona, his mistress, recently written into his will. And of course Margaret, his wife. We were lucky to recover the body at all, it was dumped in the factory's waste chute and would have been incinerated when the morning..."
Fossington-Pryce interrupted. "In that case it is almost certain that Harvey killed him - had any of the others taken such trouble to steal his gun they would hardly want to destroy the evidence provided by the bullet."

These sorts of mysteries sell millions of novels a year and have a well-deserved place in role-playing games too. The extra challenge here is to make sure that your players have a fair chance of drawing the right conclusions from the available clues. One good trick is to feed them a little more information if they get stuck. Forensics could find an extra clue (though the significance might not be clear) or a new witness might come forth. In a low tech background seers and visions can provide guidance. In either case the evidence may be misleading or even planted! And did Harvey do it, or was he brilliantly framed ?

Paradoxes

Two weeks earlier the twins had been abducted from their father's manor. Now Witchhunter Vaughn knew what had become of one of them. Sacrificed to the Goddess of the Moon in this very clearing. The twins' father, Duke Canning, had urged him to move swiftly in destroying the entire cult - he had presented him with the scroll warning that the other twin would suffer the same fate. The sacrifice ritual could only be carried out under a full moon, which was in six days' time. Vaughn scowled, this case was not as simple as the Duke seemed to believe...

Puzzles in games are often presented explicitly to the players in a form that they must solve. However, it is sometimes possible to subtly introduce a situation which contains inherent contradictions. As soon as a paradox like this is noticed by the players it becomes a puzzle to be solved. This is a very satisfying style of puzzle and has the advantage that it naturally leads to further intrigue and adventure. In the example above, the Witchhunter might suspect that the Moon Cult were not the ones who captured the twins. Or maybe they were, but they are not really followers of the Moon Goddess. Or perhaps the twins were abducted much earlier, but the Duke does not wish this to be known for some reason. Unfortunately this kind of puzzle is often time based and it is very hard to set up paradoxes which are not.

Lateral Thinking

Ulgoin rolled the barrel down the corridor, it was far too heavy to lift, reminding himself that the five thousand sovereigns it held were more than worth the effort. Then he stopped. The tunnel ahead was blocked by a pit. Ulgoin peered down it. It was only six feet deep and a mere four feet wide, a simple matter to climb down, then up the other side or to jump over it... without the barrel. At the side of the pit lay a sturdy plank of wood about a yard in length and about twice that length in rope, together with six long iron nails. Ulgoin sat down and scratched his beard, deep in thought.

Not all puzzles are exactly what they appear. Puzzles involving lateral thinking are sometimes most plausible and most stylish. The catch is that players will almost never solve them. This need not be a bad thing - if you want to give the PCs a chance at something but you'd prefer they failed this could be the ideal way. If they succeed they'll certainly get a sense of achievement! In designing a lateral thinking puzzle the trick is to undermine the players' expectations. Experienced role-players, particularly, tend to see most things as clichés, which can be exploited to great advantage.

Ulgoin smiled to himself and stood up. Opening the barrel he tipped most of the coins onto the floor of the passage with great care. Then, tying the rope around the barrel he lowered it into the pit. This was going to be a long job...

Conclusion -- The Perfect Puzzle...

  • would tie in well with the game world, with a clear reason for why the puzzle should be there;
  • might have a time limit in some form;
  • would let skills of the characters help the players, but not solve their problems for them;
  • would not have absolute success and absolute failure as the only possible outcomes;
  • might be insoluble without further (adventure-based) information or help;
  • would not cater exclusively to the skills of one player -- or would be set in a context which corrected the bias.

Dominic Camus     Tim Harford

Epilogue -- On living in a security-conscious dungeon by Philip Stevens

It was late. Grembelur the Wizard knew it was late, but he didn't care.
He was as pissed as the proverbial Pseudo Dragon and didn't care who knew it. The last few weeks had been both a mental and physical strain on a man of his years. As a young Thaumaturgist he could summon the Watcher at the Eastern Gate at the snap of his fingers, the only reason he didn't was because it took twenty minutes to invoke 'Baldroon's Sparkling Lights' and 'Horgred's Colourful Smoke' simultaneously. The punters always wanted a good show. However, in his advanced years, the Old Mage had taken nearly a week to summon the bugger, admittedly with a few 'embellishments'. All so that some rich obese merchant could find out if the girl behind the bar at the Dragon and Cucumber fancied him.
Still it was all worth it in the long run. One had to earn one's gold pieces somehow (which was roughly the direct translation to the answer Brian -- that was the Watcher at the Eastern Gate's first name, they were on first name terms by now -- had given Grembelur to his question, although Grembelur thought a more apposite phrasing would be 'Indeed, yes, but she must be wined and dined and showered in presents like the princess she is').

Grembelur drained his flagon and fished inside his robes for his purse. He cursed. The bloody thing was empty! He'd have to go to the hole in the wall.

Several minutes later, Grembelur stumbled out of the correct door, although the sore nose was a testimony to the difficulty in discerning the true exit through the Barman's powerful 'Baldwin's Mirrored Door' spell which Grembelur swore blind he cast on the said portal to prevent people leaving without spending all of their money. As the cold night air hit him in the face, the old Mage decided that actually he had had quite enough thank-you very much, and that he might not be as lucky in effecting and escape from the Hydra's Head next time around. He was too drunk to drive his carpet home so he had better get a cab. The carpet would be safe with its Krook-Lock - a marvellous device which rolled up the carpet around the would-be carpet thief and kept him locked up there until the police arrived. He still had to go to the hole in the wall to get some cash.

The sign proudly proclaimed 'Ye Shire Bank Magnificent Hole-in-the-Wall' in bold letters and there was a bloody queue! After several minutes of tiresome waiting behind a gaggle of pissed orcs and some equally inebriated orcettes (it was so hard to tell these days) it eventually came to Grembelur's turn. He sighed in relief and waited for life to appear in the dark pit in the wall.

'Hello, I'm the Shire Homunculus - please insert your gemstone' came the chirpy voice from the scaly figure in the void. Grembelur did so.
'And what is your Personal Identification Number?'
'Er' replied Grembelur.
'I'm sorry I didn't quite hear that.'
Grembelur froze - he had forgotten his PIN number!
'Calm yourself', he thought. 'It's the number of gold pieces you found in that dragon's hoard in the Quest for the Eye of Himbor...'
'Yes but how many was that!?' He shouted aloud.
'I'm afraid that number is incorrect.'
'I wasn't talking to you, you little bastard!' Grembelur rasped, firing a miniature fireball into the black hole.
'Please be aware that the figure in the Hole-in-the-Wall is merely an astral projection. Any complaints or queries should be addressed to our main office. Please state your Personal Identification Number.'
Grembelur screwed his face up. Wait a minute, if you take away the number of black riders from the year of the invasion of the Badger People, the number left over was his PIN divided by the Primary Cardinal signs of Ondor. That was two thousand and forty three minus six times three equals... '6111!' Or was it twenty forty -two?
'Personal Identification Number Incorrect. This gem has been confiscated by Shire Bank. Next customer please'
'What!? I'll fry your scaly butt, you ...'
'Please be aware that the figure in the Hole-in-the-Wall is merely an astral projection. Any complaints or queries should be addressed to our main office. Next customer please.'

It was a long walk home. He was cold and miserable when he arrived at his castle. No-one greeted him at the great stone door as his fortress was magically automated.
'Open' he commanded, as he neared the magic portal.
'Welcome to the home of Grembelur, Mage' a deep voice intoned, 'Master of the void, of the stars and the page, Intone the ancient words of lore, If it is your wish to pass this door.'

This was easy. He knew this, it was his mother's birthday.

'April the twenty-third' he said.
'Wrong. Burn in Abyssnial fire!' the door replied as the floor beneath Grembelur's feet turned to molten lava and the old wizard sunk into the burning mire.

'Oh Bugger...'