Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wallbanging Moments

I really don’t like riddles or puzzles when I run. They never work out as I plan, they never seem to get solved (unless I make them pathetically easy), and parties don’t like them.

Yet, stupidly, I keep putting them in. Half the time, I’m not even aware I’ve gone and created one, until I’ve got a party standing around, scratching their collective heads.

Which I wouldn’t mind, except that ‘finding a solution’ steadily degrades into the ‘try anything’ approach.

For example. Let’s say that the party is wandering through a dungeon, and on level one they find an attractive, engraved sword with an ornate handle. On level two they find a statue, the hand of which is open, as though it should have a sword in it.

As the DM, you’re thinking, “Put the sword in the hand and it will point at the wall where there is a secret door.” This doesn’t seem very complicated. However, the party is thinking, “Put the sword in the hand and some mechanism will be put into motion.”

You’ve never said a word about a mechanism, but the certainty of its presence will now proceed to waste an hour and a half of running time. Observe:

- I put the sword in the hand. What happens? Nothing happens.

- I move the sword around. Does anything click? No.

- I take the sword out and put my mace there instead. Anything? No.

- The thief looks for any secret catches or possible catches in the statue. (rolls dice). Nothing.

- What is the statue made of? Marble.

- We should try a non-metal weapon. The mage tries his staff. Does that work? No, nothing happens.

- I closely examine the statue’s face. Is it anyone we recognize? No.

- How long ago was it carved? You’re not sure; perhaps two or three hundred years ago.

- I examine the sword. Are there any catches or buttons? No, it’s a sword.

- I turn the sword around so that the blade is in the statue’s handle. How about now? Nothing happens.

- How tall is the statue? It’s life-sized.

- Is it taller than a typical human? No.

- How much taller is the ceiling above the statue? About three feet.

- I climb up on the statue and check the ceiling above it. Okay.

- While the thief does that, I look at the base of the statue and all around. What do I see? You see the floor. There’s nothing special about the ceiling.

- How far is the statue from the door? Ten feet

- How many sword lengths is the statue from the door? (stupefied expression on my part). Two and a half.

- I’ve got it! How heavy is the statue? About 2,600 lbs.

- Hm. Jake has a ten-foot pole; I take my pick axe and I start to make a hole at the base of the statue so that Jake can get his pole underneath it. My backpack is full of gold – if we use it for a fulcrum, will we be able to use the ten-foot pole as a lever to turn the statue over? I don’t think the pole would be strong enough.

- What if we lashed the sword to the 10’ pole? I have three hundred feet of twine.

- I have an ‘adhere’ cantrip.

- Would that work? Uh, maybe. If it makes a saving throw against ... say, crushing blow.

- (Looking around at agreeable compatriots) Worth a try, huh? (All agree). Good, we start to move the statue.

And at this point the DM pounds head on desk, saying, “Guys. Have you considered ...”

This is how it always seems to go for me. In the effort to do something, three quarters of the time the party doesn’t just fail to guess the puzzle, they actively go about destroying any future chance of solving the puzzle.

I have played with a lot of different people over the last thirty years, and it always the same. It is good that D&D players are generally social misfits, living an underground fandom existence. I fear that any of these people should ever be put in charge of something that truly matters.


Chgowiz said...

It's OK to point out that I'm one of the social misfit idiots. :)

Each person perceives the world a bit differently. To me, what may sound like a personal issue to someone else sounds like a quest to find lost treasure, to someone else is a research project. And we could all be wrong.

I'd also say that the lack of "being there" in the moment is what makes these things hard. I think someone has to have a natural knack of thinking outside the box to accept the inputs from text/spoken descriptions and/or be able put themselves in the moment (to think that the sword might point to the location...) to be able to solve puzzles well.

I should point out that as a child, I sucked at solving Encyclopedia Brown riddles and mysteries.

Alexis said...

Yeah, me too. I feel I must somehow always misdescribe, or fail to fully provide all that I need to provide, to make puzzles work. But when I think about giving more information, it seems to make the solution obvious ... and then why do a puzzle at all?

Flatline said...

I solved the thing by adding puzzles only to non-essential parts of the plot. If the secret door you wrote about just contains treasures, if your players don't solve the puzzle they simply "lose something", but the "story" can go on.

Chgowiz said...

The only thing I try to be is a player's eyes, ears, nose and sense of touch in my world. I can't always give them the answer, although at times, I will give clues. Just like you've done.

I think puzzle solving is partially a skill but also the art of troubleshooting can be applied. It's amazing how many people cannot troubleshoot in today's electronic world.

I've honestly tried to approach your puzzle by a bit of troubleshooting, dividing the issue in half and applying what I know of how women I've known will act. Am I right? Probably not... but I also don't see your puzzle as frustration, more of an obstacle for which there is no clear resolution. We may figure it out, we may not.

I think I was more frustrated that we're trying to solve it via email/blog post... this is where tabletop shines in that back and forth that seems to flow.

I've tried to make puzzles more about environment these days... or make them be something else - the Magic Mouth in a room booming "Read the words in the correct order" and there's a door with words on it.. that form an Explosive Rune... so if you read it as normal words... boom. Too bad if you're close enough.

Anonymous said...

Me too (on social misfithood and source of most recent blog). why I think there's still hope for the world when D&D players do go out and try to solve things is that with the people and projects I manage in real life I've got a much better idea of the boundaries, typical problems and a wealth of data and expereince to draw from. There's no magical answer to my problems in real life because nobody in my workplace can hurl magic missiles as far as I know. For instance, if the software application we've implemented to assist with a critical work process isn't making things easier or faster, there's a glut of data and information I can access almost immediately to sort through. With D&D, on the other hand, one is somehwat at the mercy of the DM's description and may therefore ask a lot of questions or try a lot of different approaches. Some of them seemingly inane to the guy who has got the answer already.

Alexis said...

Flatline, sadly, sometimes the party wants something that can't be obtained except through problem solving ... ie., We want so-and-so to like us. How?


My main trouble always comes from the assumption of some expected result (like above) or presumption that just ISN'T there. As an ejudicator, I wonder how fair I am if I point out, "I never said there was any mechanism. Where did that come from?"

I should say, this post wasn't a direct reflection upon what's going on in the campaign. It just reminded me that this is something I haven't posted about.

Alexis said...

I do believe Andrej slapped me with that last phrase. Ow. :)

Anonymous said...

If it was a slap, it was only a gentle one. I think, though, it was more an acceptance that what we're doing is inane to you beciase a) we are groping and b) you do have the answer.

Chgowiz said...

I'm learning to balance the "adjudicator" part with "How long will I sit here bored while the party spins itself into frustration and boredom..." so I've started being a little more explicit OR adapting the situation. I'll try to remain as neutral as possible while trying to keep the wheels greased.

Take, for instance, my Wizard's Tower in my campaign. It has Guards & Wards cast which makes for some interesting road blocks. I heard some wailing and gnashing of teeth at quarters at the fact that they had to roll dice while trying to brute force a solution. Eventually, they got it and now it's a simple matter of following ropes to get past the more difficult of those obstacles. I could have made them redo the test each time, but at a certain point, I'm more going to facilitate them to either succeed or fail rather than spin in circles.

I've been known to suggest a multiple choice answer, some of which are red herrings, some of which man lead to answers.

I also try to discuss things after the game so that people learn how I think. That can help to solve the riddle.

I just stared at the gent at one of my demo games who asked if he could roll to "know the answer." You would have thought I was castrating him when I said "That's not how we do it at my table."

Alexis said...

Fair enough, Svengali ... keeping in mind this particular story line has never happened, but was invented for this post only. Is it right to 'assume' anything for which you do not have an answer?

Point in fact, which I did not include in my post. There are a series of riddles which have been invented, which the listener is told to solve by asking questions to which the puzzler can only answer by yes or no answers. For example:

A man is walking down the street one day when he sees a sign in a window that reads, 'Fresh Condor-Meat Sandwiches Sold Daily.' The man then says, "I haven't had a condor meat sandwich in years." He goes into the restaurant and orders a sandwich. When it is brought to him, he takes a bite, then puts the sandwich down. Then he takes a gun out of his pocket and kills himself. Why?

This sort of story is a challenge because, while it does not have every piece of data needed to solve the riddle (thus the questions), the listener is encouraged to assume nothing and to ask the correct questions.

In the example that you gave Svengali, the correct question would be, "When the sword is in the statue's hand, what is the sword's orientation?" Assuming that it is vertical is not correct behavior.

In many ways, all of D&D can be argued to follow the course of riddles such as the one given above, as it is IMPOSSIBLE for a DM to give verbally every possible clue in describing an endless world. It is also up to the players to interpret, ask thoughtful questions and come to conclusions.

Anonymous said...

In an odd way, I started asking what can I do before I read this. Heh.

R said...

This is why I keep a mini-board game hourglass at my table. The PCs get to muck around with the statue for about 3 minutes, and then something else happens. Sometimes they know they're on a clock (they can hear/see the something coming) or sometimes the hourglass is behind my screen and they're unaware that they're running out of time.

The second helpful tip would be to make sure that puzzles aren't integral for things to move forward. In the statue scenario, I wouldn't have the secret door be the exit (not that you did), but just another room. Or if the secret door IS the exit, just have consequences set up if the PCs take too long to figure things out.

I include puzzles and riddles sparsely throughout my games, but that's only because it's fairly unusual to have to solve them in normal life.

(another option would be to set a timer, and at the end of the timer the PCs are allowed Wisdom checks for hints, even if they're obvious hints)

Zzarchov said...

I use puzzles a lot and the two things I do are described here.

Put a visual hourglass or timer running to remind the players things are going on, and do not make it essential.

Another trick I have seen used is to make there be a mechanic to have a eureka moment to solve a puzzle. Usually the players cash something in (XP usually) for a big ole hint.

I don't use such a mechanic, I dislike it, but it is an option.

Alexis said...

I sort of like the XP cost for a hint ... at least it would convey that these things need to be taken seriously.

R, it is unusual to solve these things in normal living; killed any orcs lately? Sorry. In any case, yes, it sometimes requires that the puzzle be the issue that stops players in their tracks, which is why I use them, I suppose. I don't run a lot of dungeons, so I don't wind up creating dungeon-style obstacles. The timer idea seems like a good one - at least when it comes to spatial puzzles. Not so much with bigger conundrums.

Anonymous said...

I don't pretend to be an expert at such things, so I apologize if you thought of this already, but my thoughts with the above example.

"- I put the sword in the hand. What happens? Nothing happens."

In short nothing happens, a quick summary and a point where the dreaded flowery language could be important.

'The sword fits snugly into the hand.' (Subtle hint A, it belongs there)

Then depending on how easy or hard you want it you could take it further.

'It points outwards from the statue' (Less subtle hint B, the word point)

and if you really think they're going to have trouble

'towards the blank wall in front of it' (hint C)

That's four hints total that can be slipped in either subtly, or with a sledgehammer.

Just how I would approach it, and it keeps the description stuff in two sentences.

BTW I just started reading though this blog and love most of the stuff. Really starts me thinking.

Anonymous said...

I use a lot of puzzles and mental games. My players get about 1/2 of them. I've learned to accept this, and they've learned that there is stuff they miss (so they try harder, all players are greedy).

As the Svengali intimated, I am very used to re explaining and focussing on certain parts of a puzzle. If I mention the hand of said statue 4 times, all of my groups have learned to focus on it.

R said...

Do you have any usual solutions for doddering players? When things drag along because your players can't make up their mind, do you have anything that helps prod them along? I would just use the same tactics here.

There's a point where you have to accept defeat :-)

By the way, if the puzzle is integral to moving forward, and the players don't solve it, I would treat that the same way as if they were defeated by a villain: adventure over, go home and regroup (if you're still alive).

For what it's worth, I think your statue example is perfectly fine. Don't fault yourself for PCs having "metagame goggles" on. Sounds like they need to up their visualization skills.

Anonymous said...

I love readding, and thanks for your artical. ........................................

Carl said...

One thing that I normally try to keep in mind when PCs encounter puzzles in my game is that what I had planned as the solution does not have to be the solution. Nothing is set in stone, and the PCs have no idea what the solution is, so if they have been mucking around and getting nowhere, after a while I normally just pick one of their better off the wall ideas and have it work. They get the "Eureka" moment, they get to feel awesome because they thought of such an off the wall solution, and the game moves forward. Sometimes letting go of your control of the story is the hardest thing to do as a DM.

Don't take that the wrong way, as I have no experience at all with you as a DM and from your blog you sound like an awesome game master. Just tossing how I do things into the arena.

The amazing thing is, PCs will nine times out of ten try something WAY more complicated and ridiculous than what you had initially envisioned, so if you just roll with it they get to feel like they figured out a REALLY complicated puzzle!

As I see it, this is a win-win situation. The game goes on, players are happy, and the DM has pulled off a fast trick that no-one will ever know about.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, humans can be thick. Especially when they expect something to be harder than it is. I guess in a situation like that, you might have to lead them a little bit.

Like: "I put the sword in the hand. What happens?" The statue is now properly armed, his elegant sword pointed in front of him, directly at the wall opposite.

It's a little like giving it away, but they already solved the "puzzle" part of the puzzle, in my opinion.

(I have the weirdest deja vu right now. Did I already post in this thread?)

Houndin said...

I've found when creating puzzles for players, that there invariably needs to be something interactive or cause-effect to any trigger.
Using your example, when the sword is placed in the statue's upraised hand, the arm rotates down to point the tip of the sword off into the distance, in a decidedly unnatural posture.
I would say that with most player groups, the harder part of the puzzle you presented would be to associate the sword with the statue, and not to figure out what do do with it afterwards. I can just hear my party's fighter refusing to give up the 'fancy' sword and go back to using his plain one.

Brian Moon said...

I'm with Carl: My solution as DM does not have to be the solution.

If the players are expecting a mechanism, then why not have there be a mechanism? If all you care about is that the sword placed in the hand points something out, then what's the difference between having it passively point, and having it rumble and grind and move into position? Maybe that's a better idea, after all. It's certainly more visual and interactive (to use Houndin's word).

It also has the benefit that you and the players are creating the story together and some of the burden is taken off your shoulders.

Great post and thanks for the thinkin' stuff you've provided me.

Alexis said...

Brian, Carl,

Well, why not. Um, principal?

I know there are the sorts of people out there who fill in false words so they can claim to have finished the New York Times crossword, but I am not one of them. I don't give ribbons and prizes for what is, essentially, FAILURE, merely for the sake of 'moving the campaign along.' Yes, I did make some remarks about wasting time...that doesn't mean I'm willing to compromise my world to facilitate the blatant misconceptions and assumptions dreamed up by players who can't THINK their way through something before pulling down statues. I will grant that perhaps the "sword pointing at the wall" may seem vague, but it is not as though this is not a fairly standard trope from about a hundred literary sources. Be that as it may ... I would rather the party starved from being trapped and lost due to a stupid error than to 'facilitate' their random actions.

It is called a puzzle for a reason, gentlemen. I am open-minded enough to accept a clever, Gordian solution, but I won't spontaneously re-incorporate my world just so players can feel 'successful.' Let me assure you - that sort of approval very quickly dries up and blows away, leaving you the DM without merit, dignity or the respect of your players. Pretty soon they will KNOW you're playing a fast one and they'll turn to mocking your world and mocking your attempts to establish ANY crediblity in anything you hope to accomplish.

Thank you no. That way lies disaster.

Carl said...

To each ther own. It may be worth pointing out that what is on the other side of the puzzle determines wether or not I would do as I suggested. If it is a secret room with some treasure, of course I wouldn't reward the pc's by just having one of the things they try work. I get the feeling that my style as a dm is much more improvisational and collaborative than yours - the world isn't "my" world, it is the player's world and I am their travel guide. Probably at least 50% of any long running campaign world of "mine" has actually been created by the players during play. But the funny thing is, from the other side of the screen the illusion is never broken. They have no idea that I so liberally take their off the cuff comments and questions and weave them into the fabric of the world.

The Party said...

You have forgotten one of the most basic assumptions of "the party". That you are out to kill "the party". A healthy dose of fear makes even the simplest puzzles seem like a bomb technicians conundrum of red or blue wire.