How do you use puzzles and challenges?

Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion

I felt like this answer was a little off topic to the thread it was in. How do you run your puzzles and challenges?

What Brian is responding to:
Our gaming time breaks down into something like this:
35% puzzles/challenges
25% combat
20% roleplaying
15% exploration
5% explaining prototypes and suggestion

While combat is still important, it's never the most important. Maybe it's because we have a lot of fans of the Zelda and Soul Reaver, but they really like short puzzles that can be bypassed when they're too hard. It could also be that we have an alternative social system that works similar to combat (mechanically). Players still defeat their foes, but having ongoing rivals and foiling each others schemes (the foes vs players that is) seems to have a better effect them a dead forgotten body.

I'm not saying the other way is wrong, I've had some fun times hack-and-slashing. I know of many games that have long term playability with mostly combat. I know there are other systems that may be better for this, but we're all really fond of using Pathfinder.

If social interaction had mechanics similar to combat, perhaps there would be more games with people participating instead of a lone "face-man". It'd also be great if the people releasing puzzle books focused more on teaching how to create good puzzles and less on "here's a puzzle, if your players bypass it, get furious because it's wasted".

I love combat and having players battle through foes... we just like the other stuff a little more. :p

Brian Bachman wrote:
Interesting. Haven't seen quite that emphasis on puzzles from many groups. I like them, too, and was a big fan of the old Dungeon magazine Challenge of Champions series as an occasional break from the usual dungeon crawls and deadly combats. As a group, however, puzzles sometimes lead to trouble, as the riddles and puzzles I or my fellow GMs design that seemed blindingly obvious to us when we designed them, frequently stump the players completely. To forestall the obvious question, we have several really bright people in my group, some with lots of fancy initials after their names. Puzzles are just tricky that way. How do you deal with it when a plot-crucial puzzle or riddle has the group completely flummoxed?

Our initial approach to puzzles is to want the players to solve them while occupying them with critical thinking. Usually when writing the puzzle I make sure to include at least three clues that can only be gained via the characters using their in-game talents (skills, combat, spells, etc).

Borrowed example from Zelda: Phantom Hourglass:
there's a room with 4 levers that must be drawn in order to open the door. Link has to read three clue locations to tell him which order to go in. At each clue location there is an enemy that can easily be dispatched with a sword stroke or two, but would be annoying to leave alive.

  • Clue One: Lever #1 is pulled after #4.
  • Clue Two: Lever #4 is not first.
  • Clue Three: Lever #3 is last.

    The puzzle can be solved without all three clues by guessing or trial and error, but it becomes easily solved with all three clues. If the Lever #3 is last, and neither the Lever #1 or #4 is first, then Lever #2 is first. Since Lever #1 is pulled after #4, Lever #4 must be second. Leaving Lever #1 third and Lever #3 last.

  • If you're writing your own puzzles, I'd recommend starting with the solution and reverse engineering it. Choose a puzzle structure (the way the information is presented) and start setting up how much information all the final clues assembled will give. Remove a piece of information or obscure a part of the puzzle to make it a clue. Keep doing this until you have at least three. Choose the rewards for the puzzle.

    treasure allotment:
    I don't recommend giving out incremental treasures when a puzzle or challenge can't be bypassed. Wait until the end because you never know how many hints will be needed to succeed. On a puzzle that isn't mandatory, give out a little with each clue to keep them motivated (something hinting at the end to build excitement). This way if they never solve it they got a little something for their trouble. Limit the time on these puzzles if they begin overtaking your game... in all things balance is essential.

    If the puzzle is mandatory to the storyline, the players will need to have ways to keep simplifying it until it is solvable. If it's not mandatory (a prize for collection the clues throughout the quest to be solved at the end), then don't allow it to be simplified to the extent listed above. It'll cheapen the experience if the players know it'll always be cracked, but it's important to allow story points to be passed.

    I recommend buying a few puzzle books for starting. I go to the used book store here and find em all the time. Adapting just takes a little time and they're usually marked for how hard they are. Avoid anything that takes you (the GM) more than half an hour to solve without hints.

    Kakarasa vs WKG:
    I use the avatar Kakarasa instead of Wicked K Games when giving my personal perspective. That's not to say we won't do a puzzlecraft book one day. ;)

    Hm... second time in two weeks that this subject has come up.

    Generally if I put something like a puzzle in an adventure I don't put the solution in. I throw some stuff I think could be helpful in somewhere and then wait for the PCs to tell me how they are solving it.

    This stops me from having a "this is the way to solve it" mentality and also prevents me from trying to find all the other solutions and finding ways to prevent them from working.

    I just wait for the plan from my players and if it sounds feasible let them make the checks that are needed for their plan.

    I've found anything else is just an exercise in frustration for everyone involved.

    RPG Superstar 2011 Top 16

    I like puzzles as well. However, they're a hard thing to pull off just right.

    I agree with most things said by the OP, so I'll only add rather than repeat:

    I've found it useful to have puzzles more-or-less set up with the following formula:

    - puzzle is originally presented as extremely difficult (or nigh impossible) to solve, but the PCs could certainly try to guess if they wish
    - steps can then be taken to get clues: either skills checks, combats, etc. Each clue makes the puzzle incrementally easier to solve
    - if the PCs were to get all of the clues, the puzzle would be stupidly easy (this is important!) but also remember that you have to "tax" the players for these clues
    - the players should be allowed to guess and get some amount of feedback from that guess (ie "the light flashes red" is much better than "it does nothing")
    - guessing should usually involve inflicing HP damage on the party, or otherwise consuming a resource
    - this allows PC to guess/gather clues at the rate appropriate to them; and if they do the puzzle with fewer hints/guesses, they are better prepared for the dungeon ahead (this way it feels more integrated rather than tacked on)

    I totally agree with clues and "taxing" players for the clues, in one game we designed you can get a clue but the clay golem gets to hit you (cursed damage and all).

    Grand Lodge

    I hate to admit it, but I do like puzzles. I'm just not that great at them. :)

    When I do plant a puzzle I have a standard method I use.

    FIrst it usually follows the form of a riddle with several clues.

    Then I have three more, easier riddles waiting in the wings that make the main riddle easier.

    If the players are having trouble with the main riddle I allow them to make Intelligence and Wisdom checks. If they succeed the check they get the first helper riddle. If they are still having trouble, they get the next riddle with a check, and then finally they get the third helper riddle if they succeed the checks.

    I set the checks to DCs based upon their modifiers. So let's say the Wizard has an INT of 20 (5 modifier) and the Cleric's Wisdom is 18 (4 modifier) the first helper riddle DC is set at 24 (Cleric needs a 20, Wizard needs a 19). The second helper puzzle DC is set to 19 (Cleric needs a 15, Wizard needs a 14). The third helper DC is set at 14 (Wizard needs a 9, Cleric needs a 10).

    This way the character can contribute with its own innate abilities as well. I know most gamers are quite bright, but I still doubt I have met many with INT 20 and/or WIS 20.

    Now I also provide another way around the puzzle. The Fighter says "Well I have STRENGTH 20!" I smile, "okay try smashing through the stone door then" (assuming the party needs to answer the puzzle to get the door open). I use the same concept, but set the DC such that he needs a d20 roll of 19-20 to do anything to the door. He'll need 5 successes to smash through.

    Why do I design it this way? So everyone in the party can contribute using their characters' best abilities, as well as the players' best abilities. Also, it's usually a real bummer if the party must get the riddle right in order to progress, and they can't figure it out. Last thing I want is for the players to give up and turn around for an easier dungeon!

    I award XP as if the puzzle was the party's level. A particularly hard puzzle might get a APL +1 XP award.

    BTW this is also the way I use traps. I prefer traps to be obvious instead of hidden.

    If a hidden trap is missed, it goes off, does some damage or whatever, and is on the stage for a few moments then the PCs move on. IF the trap is obvious, the inherent anxiety of setting off the trap causes the players to spend a LOT more time on solving it.

    My favorite was a simple open pit trap. Nothing fancy. PCs came across it and spent at least half an hour figuring out the best way to cross it. They could have just jumped down, taken a few points of damage and climbed up the other side. Instead the trap became one of the more memorable features of the dungeon. Traps therefore become puzzles to be solved rather than an annoyance that is nothing more than a resource tax.

    In the Pathfinder Society scenario, Delirium's Tangle, they present probably the best rules yet I have seen for using mazes and puzzles.

    Good stuff from all. Thank you very much. Interesting and challenging puzzle design has always been a challenge for me and you've all given me some good suggestions and food for thought.

    Community / Forums / Pathfinder / Pathfinder First Edition / General Discussion / How do you use puzzles and challenges? All Messageboards

    Want to post a reply? Sign in.